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How Did Elisa Lam End Up Dead in a Hotel Water Tank?


Authorities gathered on the roof of the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles after the discovery of Elisa Lam's body in the hotel's water tank. Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Authorities gathered on the roof of the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles after the discovery of Elisa Lam's body in the hotel's water tank. Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

When 21-year-old college student Elisa Lam was found dead in the water tank of the Cecil Hotel (now closed) in Los Angeles in 2013, the mysterious circumstances surrounding her case captured national attention. Her body was found after guests of the hotel complained about low water pressure and a strange taste, which led employees to investigate their water tanks. That's where they found Lam's body, floating naked, her clothes, watch and room key in the water beside her. Her cell phone was never found. The coroner listed her death as a drowning.

Lam traveled to Los Angeles from Vancouver alone, and went missing from her Cecil Hotel room soon after she arrived. After a week searching for leads, the Los Angeles Police Department released a video of her last known whereabouts: security camera footage from inside the hotel's elevator. It was this video that sparked interest from amateur internet sleuths because of her seemingly strange behavior: Lam pushes the buttons for several floors at once, then appears to hesitantly poke her head into the hallway and look quickly back and forth before backing into the elevator and ducking into the corner.

The elevator door does not close. She pokes her head out again, then leaves the elevator altogether. She stands to the side and gesticulates strangely with her hands as if talking to someone, though no one else can be seen on the video. Finally, Lam leaves the scene entirely, and the elevator doors close.

Some viewers think her behavior could be explained away as possible psychedelic drug use, while others say she could have been trying to hide from a pursuer. Her death has even been linked to the Korean elevator game, a ritual of pressing buttons on an elevator in a certain order to reach another dimension.

The most plausible explanation is that Lam had bipolar disorder, and according to her autopsy, had only taken her prescribed stimulant medications but neither of her stabilizers. This may have led to a manic episode, which can cause some bipolar sufferers to experience hallucinations or psychosis. If Lam had a manic episode, it's possible she thought someone was following her, perhaps causing her to hide in the water tank for safety.

This doesn't satisfy everyone, however. The hotel's water tanks are not easy to access; they are located on the roof of the Cecil, and only hotel staff keys unlock the doors to the roof. Lam could have used the fire escape to get onto the roof, but those trigger alarms and hotel staff say they never heard the alarms go off. Also, the openings to the water tanks are 10 feet (3 meters) up, and require a ladder to reach, but there were none around the night Lam ended up inside. The lid to the tank also was not hinged, leading some to wonder how the lid was closed if she got in of her own accord.

Then there's the Cecil itself, a hotel with a storied and gory reputation. Notorious serial killer Richard Ramirez — aka the Nightstalker — lived there in 1984 while he killed 13 people. There were also several suicides, including one where the victim fell on top of a pedestrian, killing them both. This grisly past only helped fuel the paranormal theories, buttressed by Lam's unsettling behavior in the video. Even the footage itself is a focus of some conspiracy theorists, who allege that the time stamp in the bottom of the frame skips forward, as if a minute of footage were removed. It is also noted that at times while Lam appears to speak to someone, her mouth is pixelated, obscuring her words.

Finally, in an even more bizarre coincidence, it was discovered that a tuberculosis drug was being studied nearby the Cecil. The name of the drug? LAM-ELISA. While nothing has been found connecting Lam or her death with the tuberculosis study, this was just one more in a series of strange circumstances that ensures that Elisa Lam's death will be a source of fascination and speculation for a long time to come.

Want to hear more about this crazy case? Join Matt Frederick, Ben Bowlin and Noel Brown in this episode of Stuff They Don't Want You to Know to get their take on what happened to Elisa Lam.