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Elisa Lam's horrifying death has sparked countless 'true crime' theories

Ella Kipling April 30, 2022
Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

Elisa Lam was a Chinese-Canadian tourist who was travelling in Los Angeles when she died in the Stay On Main hotel in Downtown LA. On 19 February 2013, her body was found in a large water cistern on top of the hotel.

Her death became the topic of countless theories as online sleuths set out to find the truth behind her disappearance.

The 2021 documentary The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel explored the case while attempting to debunk some of the theories surrounding the case. Lam was born on 30 April 1991, which made her just 21 years old at the time of her death.

Photo by Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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Who was Elisa Lam?

In 2013, after being reported as missing, the naked body of Elisa Lamb was discovered by a maintenance worker who was investigating guest complaints of low water pressure. Lam’s death became the focus of speculation and investigations by online true crime ‘sleuths’.

In 2021, Elisa’s death was in the headlines again following the release of Netflix documentary The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel, directed by Joe Berlinger. One of the reasons Berlinger chose to make the documentary was the large number of conspiracy theories surrounding the death.

Berlinger told Radio 1 Newsbeat: “This story has been told before but I think it’s been done very irresponsibly in the past. For the average viewer, it’s another compelling story you watch and then move on to the next. But for who this happened to, it’s the worst moment in their life. It’s a real tragedy for that person and that family.”

Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

What happened to Elisa Lam?

CCTV footage of the last moments before Elisa Lam’s death went viral after its release in 2013. The four-minute video shows Lam in a hotel elevator. She makes unusual gestures, appears to press every button, and jumps in and out of the elevator. Then, she is gone.

This footage became the main focus for endless theories that began to surface about Lam’s death. However, in June 2013 Lam’s death was ruled an accident. In a phone interview with The Vancouver Sun, LA coroner’s lieutenant Fred Corral said bipolar disorder was considered a significant role in Lam’s death.

Forensic pathologist Dr Tovar told Refinery29: “All the background information that’s used to rule this as an accident is not necessarily made available to the public. I think that for people on the internet, you really don’t have the full story in front of you. You don’t have all the facts.” 

Did Elisa Lam stay at the Cecil Hotel?

Elisa Lam technically booked to stay at the budget hostel. The Cecil Hotel had converted half its floors to the Stay On Main while keeping long-term residences on separate floors. The hotels had different entrances but shared an elevator.

Following Lam’s disappearance, manager at the time Amy Price said fingers were pointed at residents and hotel staff, which Price told The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel was “stressful and heartbreaking”.

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Ella is the Head of Content at Freshered and also works a freelance journalist at GRV Media, writing for HITC and Reality Titbit. Her interests lie in news and anything culture related including entertainment, musicals, books, and social media. Ella is also a big supporter of student media and writes for her university’s newspaper as well as hosting her own show on the radio station.