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Elisa Lam Drowned in a Water Tank Three Years Ago, but the Obsession with Her Death Lives On

The 21-year-old's mysterious death at LA's notorious Cecil Hotel remains unsolved.

Santiago Lopez wasn't expecting to find a dead body when he scaled the rooftop of the Cecil Hotel on February 19, 2013. A complaint about the water pressure prompted him to take the elevator to the 15th floor, where he hiked a set of stairs to the roof and then climbed a ladder to reach the ten-foot-tall water tank. He immediately noticed that the hatch was open. Inside, Elisa Lam's corpse lay face up in the water.

Lopez, a hotel maintenance employee, detailed this discovery in court documents filed last month by attorneys for the Cecil, a historic hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The new declarations, issued by three staff members, are part of the hotel's push to dismiss a trial pursued by Lam's parents, David and Yinna Lam, who live in Vancouver, Canada. The couple sued the hotel in September 2013, alleging negligence led to the wrongful death of their 21-year-old daughter; a trial is slated for February. Attorneys for both the Cecil Hotel and the Lams declined to comment for this story.

Nearly three years after Lam was found floating lifeless and naked—a detail Lopez did not acknowledge, but that was stated in the autopsy—the circumstances of her death remain unknown. (Officially, her death was ruled an accidental drowning by the Los Angeles County coroner.) It has since become a source of fascination for amateur internet sleuths around the world, owing in part to elevator surveillance footage that surfaced online showing Lam behaving strangely, and has inspired storylines for a spat of film and TV projects, including the most recent season of American Horror Story.

Kim Cooper, an LA crime historian, said Lam has become such a tragically iconic figure that she's drawn comparisons to Elizabeth Short, otherwise known as the Black Dahlia—perhaps the city's most famous murder victim whose gruesome 1947 death is still unexplained. (Contrary to popular belief, Short never stayed at the Cecil, according to Cooper.) While the Black Dahlia was catapulted into posthumous fame via noir novels and films of the same name, Lam's story became a sensation for a very different reason: hers unfolded on the internet.

"It allows people to feel like they're actually participating in this investigation," said Cooper, who leads a series of crime-focused bus tours including one about the Cecil Hotel and its most famous tenant, Richard Ramirez, a.k.a The Night Stalker. Ramirez dominated television and newspaper headlines during his horrifying 1980s killing spree, but Cooper points out that people "didn't have the ability to spend [their] whole evening going over it again and again and putting [their] own theories together and cropping bits of the video together," as obsessives have done with Lam's case.

Lam's Tumblr blog, filled with bright stylish photos of art and fashion and ramblings about depression, pain, and anxiety, no doubt contributed to the intrigue. "She gave so much information about herself through social media. She's sweet and she's funny and she's creative and she's caring, and she's so messed up, you know?" Cooper said. The Tumblr page paints a portrait of a smart young woman interested in feminism, classic novels, film noir, impressionist painters, and modernist architecture. Its tagline is a Chuck Palahniuk quote: "You're always haunted by the idea you're wasting your life."

This persona stands in stark contrast to the question of how Lam ended up frantic in an elevator in one of LA's most notoriously seedy hotels. Her death led many to wonder what Lam was doing at the Cecil in the first place, and what compelled her erratic behavior. A student at University of British Columbia, Lam was last seen on January 31, 2013—five days after she arrived in LA via Amtrak, according to a statement from the Los Angeles Police Department.

Internet obsessives have pored over the details of her disappearance in much the same way as fans have attempted to analyze the murder of Hae Min Lee from the wildly popular Serial podcast or that documentarian Andrew Jarecki went looking for clues leading to serial killer Robert Durst's apparent murder confession in HBO's The Jinx. But for many people, the most baffling aspect of Lam's disappearance was a four-minute video released by detectives on February 13, 2013 in the hopes that someone might recognize her.

In the clip, which has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on various YouTube channels, Lam gets into an elevator, studies the buttons, and then proceeds to cower in a corner before leaping towards the doors to flip her head frantically in both directions, as if someone were chasing her. Midway through the video, Lam walks out into the hallway and gesticulates with her hands, as if she's petting a large invisible dog or paddling through murky water.

Online commenters have posited countless theories about this moment, ranging from the seemingly plausible (drugs, hallucinations, mental breakdowns) to the supernatural (mind and body possession, demons, paranormal activity) to the macabre and malicious.

Some believe that Lam may have been sick with tuberculosis, since there was an outbreak around the time of her death that affected thousands of people in the area near the Cecil. (The test to identify tuberculosis, eerily enough, is called LAM-ELISA.) But Lam's autopsy showed no evidence of tuberculosis in her lungs. Cooper and others speculate that Lam could have been under the effects of something like a sleeping aid, which would explain her bizarre, dreamlike behavior. But Lam's toxicology report found no sign of drug or alcohol intoxication.

Lam did have bipolar disorder, which medical examiners said was a factor contributing to, but not an immediate cause of, her death. Lam's sister told LAPD Detective Wallace Tennelle that Lam had been taking four different kinds of medications to treat her disorder: Wellbutrin (an anti-depressant), Lamotrigdine (an anti-convulsant), Quetiapine (an anti-epilleptic and mood stabilizer), and another one that Lam's sister couldn't remember. While medical examiners studied Lam for traces of the medications, they said their analysis was limited because they did not perform blood work.

Whatever the reason for Lam's behavior in the elevator, the footage has become ripe for creative dramatization. "The mystery behind it, I mean, it laid itself out as this grotesquely beautiful, wonderfully sad tale," said Destin Pfaff, an LA-based screenwriter and indie horror director who is most recognizable for his role as a professional cupid on the Bravo reality show Millionaire Matchmaker. "We live in this world of viral videos," he added, "and everyone's looking for that next campfire tale or urban legend so they can be distracted."

For Pfaff, the video was more than just a distraction—it became the inspiration for his forthcoming movie, which explores ideas of possession and conduits. Having finally secured the funding, he plans to start production on the short this winter as part of a limited-release anthology horror film. And it won't be the only one to fictionalize the chilling elevator sequence.

During a press tour this summer, American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy told reporters the current season of the FX series was inspired by "a surveillance video that went around two years ago that showed a girl getting into an elevator in a hotel that was said to be haunted." Then there's the spec script Sony purchased last year based on Lam's short time at the Cecil Hotel. While co-writer Brandon Murphy told me the script has since been significantly rewritten "and has absolutely nothing to do with Elisa Lam," he confirmed it was still based on the hotel where she last stayed.

Not everyone is as captivated by the Cecil's reputation as a hotbed of hauntings, gore, and ghosts. Becky Dennison, a co-director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, said Hollywood's ghoulish depiction of the 1927 building can be damaging and stigmatizing for its many long-term, extremely low-income tenants.

"I mean, it's pretty offensive actually that American Horror Story is based on the Cecil Hotel," said Dennison, whose organization advocates on behalf of Skid Row's most vulnerable residents. She said the hotel has historically served as "homes for the elderly and the disabled and very low-income people. One incident doesn't change that and certainly not the mythology of American Horror Story. It's ridiculous."

The Cecil has tried repeatedly to launder its longstanding reputation for being both seedy and scary. In 2007, then-owner Fred Cordova announced plans to convert the brick building into a trendy boutique hotel, reimagined as The Stay on Main. A city ordinance thwarted Cordova's plans, requiring the building—designated as a residential hotel—to reserve half its units for low-income tenants. Meanwhile, the other half of the building was marketed as "the hippest boutique hotel and hostel in downtown Los Angeles," according to its website, which advertises Xbox games, a Netflix movie lounge, and free WiFi to young international travelers like Lam. The boutique half of the hotel even has its own entrance separate from the Cecil's long-term tenants. The elevator, however, remains shared territory.

Three days into her stay at The Cecil—the last day she was seen alive—Lam was moved from a hostel-style room to a private one on the same floor after her roommates complained of "odd behavior," according to a statement attributed to hotel manager Amy Price in recent court documents. In the declaration, Price stated that the roof of the hotel was restricted to hotel guests, and that there are only four ways to access it: three are via fire escapes on the sides of the building, and the fourth is through a locked rooftop door that sets off an alarm when opened. It's the same door Lopez used his staff key to deactivate the alarm on shortly before finding Lam's body in the water tank. To this day, no one knows how Lam got up there.

As Lam's parents look ahead to next year's trial seeking damages from the hotel, the conditions surrounding Lam's death only seem to grow more mysterious with each retelling of the story, each comment left on online investigative forums, and each viewing of the elevator footage.

"It's tragic and there's a real human being that died and that's nothing to make light of, but the myth around her death and the question mark—it's going to live on for a long time," Pfaff said. "It doesn't go away."

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