The Unsolved Mystery Behind The Disturbing Death Of Elisa Lam

Published April 5, 2019
Published April 5, 2019

Elisa Lam was found dead in a water tank at the notorious Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles in 2013. To this day, nobody knows how she died or how her body got there.

Elisa Lam

FacebookElisa Lam

“In 22 years plus of doing this job as a news reporter, this is one of those cases that kinda sticks with me because we know the who, what, when, where. But the why is always the question,” said NBC LA reporter Lolita Lopez in reference to the mysterious death of Elisa Lam.

To this day, nobody knows how exactly Elisa Lam died. We know that the 21-year-old Canadian college student was last seen in the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles on Jan. 31, 2013. But the infamously chilling hotel surveillance video that captured the bizarre final moments before her disappearance — let alone the other details that have emerged since — have only elicited more questions than answers. Ever since her body was discovered in the hotel’s water tank on Feb. 19, her tragic demise has remained shrouded in mystery.

Although the coroner’s office ruled her death as an “accidental drowning,” the strange details of Lam’s case have fueled rampant speculation about what may have really happened. Internet sleuths have come up with a myriad of theories about the tragedy, involving everything from murder conspiracies to evil spirits. But when it comes to the disturbing death of Elisa Lam, where does the truth lie?

The Vanishing Of Elisa Lam

Death Of Elisa Lam

Facebook/LAPDElisa Lam during her days as a student at the University of British Columbia.

On Jan. 26, 2013, Elisa Lam arrived in LA. She had just come by Amtrak train from San Diego and was headed to Santa Cruz as part of her solo trip around the West Coast. The trip was supposed to be a getaway from her studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where she was originally from.

Her family had been wary of her traveling by herself but the young student was determined to go at it alone. As a compromise, Lam made sure to check in with her parents every day of the trip to let them know that she was safe.

That’s why it struck her parents as unusual when they didn’t hear from their daughter on Jan. 31, the day she was scheduled to check out of her LA hotel, the Cecil. The Lams eventually contacted the Los Angeles Police Department. The police searched the premises of the Cecil but couldn’t find her.

Cecil Hotel

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty ImagesElisa Lam went missing while she was staying at the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles.

Police soon released surveillance footage taken from the cameras at the Cecil Hotel on their website. This is where things took a turn into the truly bizarre.

The hotel video showed Elisa Lam in one of its elevators, on the date of her disappearance, acting rather strangely. In the pixelated footage, Lam can be seen stepping into the elevator and pushing all the floor buttons. She steps in and out of the elevator, poking her head out sideways toward the hotel’s hallways in between. She peers out of the elevator another few times before stepping out of the elevator entirely.

Hotel surveillance footage of Elisa Lam before her disappearance.

The last minutes of the video show Lam standing by the left side of the door, moving her hands in random gestures. Nobody else was captured on the video, except Lam.

Public reaction to the inexplicable video crossed all the way to Canada and China, where Lam’s family is originally from. The four-minute video of Lam’s strange elevator episode has amassed tens of millions of views.

The Accidental Discovery Of The Body

Hotel Water Tank

KTLARescuers try to remove Elisa Lam’s body from the water tank on the rooftop of the Cecil Hotel.

On Feb. 19, two weeks after the video was published by authorities, maintenance worker Santiago Lopez found Elisa Lam’s dead body floating in one of the hotel water tanks. Lopez made the discovery after responding to complaints from hotel patrons about low water pressure and a weird taste coming from the tap water.

According to a statement by the chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department, the tank in which Lam’s body was found had to be drained completely and then cut open from the side to remove her five-foot-four frame.

Nobody knows how Lam’s corpse — floating lifelessly next to the same clothes she wore in the surveillance video — ended up in the hotel’s water tank or who else might have been involved. Hotel staff told authorities that Lam was always seen by herself around the hotel premises.

LAPD conference announcing the investigation into Elisa Lam’s disappearance.

But at least one person did see Lam soon before her death. At a nearby shop, eerily named The Last Bookstore, owner Katie Orphan was among the last to see Elisa Lam alive. Orphan remembered the college student buying books and music for her family back in Vancouver.

“It seemed like [Lam] had plans to return home, plans to give things to her family members and reconnect with them,” Orphan told CBS LA.

When the autopsy results for Lam’s case came out, it only served to ignite more questions. The toxicology report confirmed that Lam had consumed a number of medical drugs, likely to be medication for her bipolar disorder. But there were no indications of alcohol or illegal substances in her body.

An Incomplete Autopsy Fuels Wild Theories

Bernard Diaz

Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles TimesBernard Diaz, 89, a resident at the Cecil Hotel for 32 years, speaks to the press after Elisa Lam’s body was found.

Soon after the toxicology report came out, amateur sleuths began poring over any information they could find in hopes of solving the mystery behind the death of Elisa Lam. For example, one summary of Lam’s toxicology report was posted online by a Reddit sleuth with an obvious interest in medicine.

The breakdown pointed out three key observations: 1) Lam took at least one antidepressant that day; 2) Lam had taken her second antidepressant and mood stabilizer recently, but not that day; and 3) Lam had not taken her anti-psychotic recently. These conclusions suggested that Lam, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, may have not been taking her medications properly.

It is an important finding to note given that the use of antidepressants to treat bipolar disorder can risk inducing manic side effects if done without caution. Some sleuths have understandably latched onto this detail and suggested it was a likely explanation behind Lam’s strange behavior in the elevator.

Hotel manager Amy Price’s statements in court strongly support this theory. During Lam’s stay at the Cecil Hotel, Price said that Lam was originally booked in a hostel-style shared room with others. However, complaints of “odd behavior” from Lam’s roommates forced Lam to be moved to a private room by herself.

But even if Elisa Lam had been suffering from mental health issues, how did she end up dead? Furthermore, how did she end up in the hotel’s water tank?

The autopsy did not show any foul play from the evidence that was processed. But the coroner’s office noted that they were unable to do a full examination because they could not examine the blood from Lam’s decomposing body.

Who’s Responsible For The Death Of Elisa Lam?

Lam At Graduation

BlogspotElisa Lam with a friend during graduation.

David and Yinna Lam filed a wrongful death suit against the Cecil Hotel several months after their daughter’s death was uncovered. The Lams’ attorney stated that the hotel had a duty to “inspect and seek out hazards in the hotel that presented an unreasonable risk of danger to [Lam] and other hotel guests.”

The hotel fought back against the suit, filing a motion to dismiss it. The hotel’s lawyer argued that the hotel had no reason to think that someone would be able to get into one of their water tanks.

Based on court statements from the hotel’s maintenance staff, the hotel’s argument is not entirely far-fetched. Santiago Lopez, who was the first to find Lam’s body, described in detail how much effort he had to exert just to find her body.

Lopez said that he took the elevator to the 15th floor of the hotel before walking up the staircase to the roof. Then, he had to first turn off the rooftop alarm and climb up on the platform where the hotel’s four water tanks were located. Finally, he had to climb another ladder to get to the top of the main tank. Only after all that did he notice something unusual.

“I noticed the hatch to the main water tank was open and looked inside and saw an Asian woman lying face-up in the water approximately twelve inches from the top of the tank,” Lopez said, as reported by LAist. Lopez’s testimony suggested that it would have been difficult for Lam to make it to the top of the water tank on her own. At least, not without anyone noticing.

The hotel’s Chief Engineer Pedro Tovar also made it clear that it would be difficult for anyone to access the rooftop, where the hotel water tanks were located, without triggering the alarms. Only hotel employees would be able to deactivate the alarm properly. If it was triggered, the sound of the alarm would reach the front desk as well as the entire top two floors of the hotel.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Howard Halm ruled that the death of Elisa Lam was “unforseeable” because it had happened in an area that guests were not allowed to access, so the lawsuit was dismissed.

The Chilling Backstory Of The Cecil Hotel

Death Of Elisa Lam

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty ImagesElisa Lam’s dead body was found in a water tank on the roof of the Cecil Hotel three weeks after she went missing.

Elisa Lam’s mysterious demise was not the first to happen at the Cecil Hotel. In fact, the building’s sordid past has earned it a reputation as one of the most supposedly haunted properties in Los Angeles.

Since opening its doors in 1927, the Cecil Hotel has been plagued by 16 different non-natural deaths and unexplained paranormal events. The most famous death associated with the hotel, other than Lam’s, was the 1947 murder of actress Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. the “Black Dahlia,” who was reportedly seen drinking at the hotel bar in the days before her grisly demise.

The hotel has also hosted some of the country’s most notorious killers. In 1985, Richard Ramirez, also known as the “Night Stalker,” lived on the top floor of the hotel during his monstrous killing spree. The story goes that after a murder, Ramirez would dump his bloody clothes outside the hotel and return half-naked. Back then, the hotel was in such disarray that Ramirez’ nude stunt barely raised an eyebrow.

Six years later, another murderous patron moved into the hotel: Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger, who earned the nickname “Vienna Strangler.”

With such a macabre history, one would think that the Cecil Hotel would soon be condemned. But actually, the old building was recently granted landmark status by the Los Angeles City Council. The hotel was given the distinction because of the building’s opening back in the 1920s, which is considered the beginning of the lodging industry in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the tragic death of Elisa Lam at the hotel has inspired pop culture adaptations like Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Hotel.

Elisa Lam Photo

FacebookElisa Lam

During a press conference for the show, Murphy stated that the new season “was inspired by a surveillance video from a Los Angeles-based hotel that surfaced two years ago. The footage showed a girl in an elevator who was never seen again.” An obvious reference to Elisa Lam and her bizarre elevator episode.

More recently, a gaming studio came under fire after users of the game YIIK: A Postmodern RPG found undeniable resemblances to Lam’s case in the storyline. In one scene of the game, main character Alex receives a video file showing another character, Sammy, in an elevator. The elevator door opens to reveal an alternate dimension on the other side; Sammy is then captured by a demon, kicking and screaming all the while.

In a 2016 interview with Waypoint, Andrew Allanson, co-founder of Acck Studios, which is the company behind the YIIK game, talked about how the death of Elisa Lam had influenced its development, saying that “there still hasn’t been a great official story about her… I remember on local news they reported it from the gross-out angle because people drank water that a corpse had been floating in. That’s unfortunate, but what about the poor girl who died? It’s easy to say she was off her meds, but why can’t people think a bit more about her as a person?”

While an answer to the mystery behind the death of Elisa Lam remains unclear, the obsession surrounding that mystery has remained in the public consciousness ever since.


After learning about the death of Elisa Lam, read the story of Joyce Vincent, whose death went tragically unnoticed for two years. Next, read about Evelyn McHale, whose deadly jump from atop the Empire State Building was referred to as the “most beautiful suicide.”

Natasha Ishak
Natasha Ishak is a staff writer at All That Is Interesting.