true crime

Elisa Lam was last seen behaving strangely in a hotel lift. Weeks later, her body was found.

This post deals with mental health and might be triggering for some readers. 

On February 19, 2013, maintenance worker Santiago Lopez took the lift to the 15th floor of Los Angeles' Cecil Hotel.

There were problems with the water supply. Complaints had been coming through to reception for days: low pressure, a dark colour, even a strange smell seeping from some of the taps.

From the 15th floor, Lopez took the stairs to the roof, where he disabled the access alarm, walked across to a platform, and then climbed a ladder to the top of the downtown building's three metre-tall water tanks. One of the hatches was open. He peered inside.

There, he saw the body of an Asian woman face up in the water, naked, with her clothes floating beside her.

It was the guest who had vanished less than three weeks earlier: 21-year-old Canadian tourist, Elisa Lam.

The disappearance of Elisa Lam.

Elisa Lam was on a solo holiday when she died. The University of British Columbia student was on her way to Santa Cruz, California, when she checked into the Cecil Hotel on January 28, 2013. 

She was booked in for a three-night stay and, according to court documents, was initially assigned a shared room but roommate complaints about her "certain odd behaviour" saw her moved to one of her own.

Elisa Lam. Image: LAPD. One of the last people to speak to Elisa was Katie Orphan, the manager of a nearby bookshop. 

She told investigators and CBS News that Elisa purchased books and music for relatives in Vancouver, and expressed concern that she wouldn't be able to fit all the items in her suitcase.

“It seemed like she had plans to return home, plans to give things to her family members and reconnect with them,” Orphan recalled. 

But they never heard from her. The last time she used her phone was on January 31.

Elisa was reported missing four days later.

The unsettling CCTV footage.

Speculation about Elisa's disappearance went global after Los Angeles Police Department released chilling CCTV footage of her last-known movements.

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It captures Elisa entering the lift at the Cecil Hotel on February 1, wearing the same clothes later found alongside her body in the water tank. 

She presses buttons for several floors, then hides in the corner. She then steps one foot back into the hallway and glances, quickly, in each direction.

She ducks in and out of the lift several times, moving in large, deliberate steps. At one point she moves only in straight lines: stepping directly sideways, or forward and backwards. 

When she moves into the hallway the final time, she makes strange, sweeping gestures with her hands and wrings her fingers. Then she walks away.

The clip, which has been viewed more than 26 million times on YouTube, lasts four minutes. No one else appears in the frame.


What happened to Elisa Lam?

The official cause of Elisa's death was determined to be accidental drowning. According to an autopsy report, there were no obvious traces of alcohol or illicit drugs in her system, and she had no history of suicidal ideation and had never attempted to take her own life. 

How and why she ended up in the water tank, though, remains unknown. The LAPD investigation proved inconclusive.

The door to the roof was alarmed, but no employees recalled it being activated in the time between her disappearance and the discovery of her body. It's been speculated that she may have accessed the roof through a window that led onto one of the building's three fire escape stairways — each is clearly marked for emergency use only.

The case remains popular with internet sleuths, who have pored over court documents, coronial findings and the bizarre CCTV footage in the search for an explanation.

The most persistent theory they've leveraged is related to her mental health. Elisa lived with depression and bipolar disorder, for which she took several prescribed medications. Bipolar disorder was listed as a contributing factor in the autopsy report, and some have speculated that she may have been in the grips of a manic episode at the time of her death. Though mania presents in a variety of ways, extreme episodes can trigger psychosis and hallucinations.

More far-fetched speculation has pointed to similarities between Elisa's death and the 2005 supernatural horror film Dark Water.

The movie, which stars Jennifer Connelly, follows a family who move into an apartment building that has issues with plumbing: the taps run black, and dark water drips from the ceiling. They later discover a neighbour's young daughter died in the rooftop water tank. In the final scenes, the family's own daughter shares the building's lift with a ghost.

In 2015, Elisa's family filed a negligence suit against the Cecil Hotel, alleging that the water tank should have been better secured to prevent such an accident occurring. The suit was dismissed.

They are no closer to finding precisely what happened.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

Feature image: LAPD.

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