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  • Lauren

Elisa Lam: Scratching the Surface

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

When I first heard about my favorite "unsolved" case of all time, I was in my freshman dorm room eagerly awaiting the premiere of American Horror Story: Hotel. My roommate and I, living alone for the first time, were psyching ourselves out the way that you do when you’re preparing to watch something scary. I was also texting my friend, who was also (and still is) a massive AHS fan. He was bombarding me with creepy facts about Ryan Murphy’s inspiration for the season, The Cecil Hotel, along with the name of a young woman whose mind-boggling death occurred after the hotel was rebranded as The Stay on Main.

I don’t doubt that I probably spent more time poring over Wikipedia, Reddit and various articles about Elisa Lam’s case than I did watching the anticipated AHS premiere. By this time, we were thoroughly freaked out as I educated my roommate on this clearly haunted hotel, which should probably be demolished ASAP. Since then, I’ve considered this case my favorite unsolved true crime case and the one that I want to see solved more than any other (not to forget JonBenet).

Elisa was a Canadian university student in the midst of her self-proclaimed “West Coast Tour” when she ended up checking into the Hotel Cecil near Skid Row in LA on January 28, 2013. After 3 days in the infamous hotel, she didn’t respond to her parents’ attempts to contact her on the day of her scheduled departure. Considering the sketchy location of the hotel and the fact that their daughter was alone in a different country, her parents were concerned enough to immediately contact the LAPD and travel to Los Angeles to aid in the search.

On February 19, Elisa’s body was finally recovered in one of the water tanks located on the roof of the hotel. Immediately, the details surrounding her death were shown to be completely bizarre- her clothes were floating in the tank with her, and the fact that she was even able to make her way onto the roof, climb to the top of the tank, open the heavy lid and lower herself inside seemed practically impossible. This led many to believe that she was the victim of foul play, however her body had no signs of physical trauma or sexual assault.

Throughout the investigation, details that may lead to several unanswered questions surfaced quite publicly. Police released the now famous video depicting elevator footage of Elisa displaying unusual and frankly disturbing behavior soon before her disappearance. I don’t think I could say enough about this nightmare fuel of a video, except that you absolutely should NOT watch it at 10 p.m. in your unfamiliar dorm room. The footage sparked speculation that Elisa was suffering a manic episode due to her bipolar disorder, which became a huge factor in one of the many theories that stemmed from this case.

The toxicology report showed that Elisa had traces of her prescription medications and a small amount of alcohol in her system, but no recreational drugs of any kind. Her cause of death was ultimately ruled accidental drowning, and it was widely assumed that a manic bipolar episode was the cause. This doesn’t explain how she achieved the virtually impossible feat of making her way to the roof and lowering herself into the cistern, but my biggest concern is that the results of the rape kit were not released, or it possibly was not processed at all. Many unanswered questions could be cleared up if it could be determined whether or not an assault was made. Several factors of this case seem to add up in one respect, but not another.

This is probably the most interesting case I’ve ever heard of, and I definitely didn’t do it justice. There are so many details to delve into, so if there are any facts that I got horribly wrong or things that you would like to add, please don’t hesitate to let me know!


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