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When a crime, a seedy hotel, and social media mix

By Zarlene B. Chua, Senior Reporter

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel

AS a true-crime documentary, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, makes most of both the legend and infamy of the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles and the social media furor that erupted after the death of 21-year-old Elisa Lam surfaced. But if one is holding out for a grand revelation about the eight-year-old mystery of the death of Ms. Lam, there’s none here — instead, it gives one a view of how her death cemented the “evil” inside the Cecil Hotel.

The four-episode series dropped on Feb. 10 on Netflix, eight years after Canadian Elisa Lam disappeared on Feb. 1 and was found dead in the hotel’s water tank on Feb. 19.

It was a grisly mystery, and the release of the infamous elevator video in 2013 which the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) hoped would help them find her ignited a social media hunt by several internet sleuths who wanted to get to the bottom of the story.

The documentary — through episodes two and three — lays out all the conspiracy theories that ran rampant at the time: that this was part of a government cover-up of a new tuberculosis strain (the tuberculosis test is called LAM-ELISA), that a death metal singer killed her, and that it was a copycat murder inspired by the 2002 film Dark Water, among others.

Unlike Don’t Fuck with Cats, a 2019 true-crime documentary that detailed the roles of internet sleuths in the capture of murderer Luka Magnotta, the internet sleuths on the Elisa Lam case were of no help at all — and in fact helped in inciting people to harass the death metal singer despite the fact that he was not in California when Elisa Lam disappeared and was recording an album in Mexico.

As a true-crime fan who heard of the case when it exploded in 2013, it is easy to see how the case fascinated people: you had a girl acting erratically in an elevator, and then the next time she was seen, she’s dead and floating in a water tank with a hatch that was supposedly closed. People cried foul play because how could a person inside a water tank close the hatch after them?

Here’s a very quick rundown of the case: 21-year-old Elisa Lam was vacationing in California and stayed at the Cecil Hotel. She had promised to call her family every day to assure them she was safe. On Jan. 31, she didn’t call and her parents reported her missing. A few days after her disappearance, the police released an elevator video showing Ms. Lam acting erratically and it seemed like she felt someone was after her. Nineteen days after her reported disappearance, she was found floating inside one of the hotel’s water tanks after hotel guests complained of dirty water and low pressure. The police eventually claimed it was an accidental drowning because Ms. Lam, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was having an episode. Still, people clung to the statement that the hatch was closed when she was found and thus concluded that there must have been foul play.

The series creators (the same team behind the 2019 documentary Conversations with a Serial Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes; the documentary is produced and directed by Joe Berlinger) did well in outlining the case and leaving out the major revelations to the latter part of the third and fourth episodes. The first two episodes focus on rehashing the case and painting one’s mental imagery of downtown Los Angeles, the Hotel Cecil and its seedy environment, Skid Row. It implies that, yes, Elisa Lam may have met with foul play.

The Cecil Hotel is a 700-room budget hotel that opened in 1924. Through the years, the hotel gained a reputation for being seedy and was the site for several suicides, homicides, etc. The general manager during Ms. Lam’s disappearance noted that she had seen about “80 deaths” during her 10-year tenure and that 911 calls had been made “thousands of times.”

Why would a 21-year-old check-in at the hotel? Well, it’s because the hotel managed to carve out two hotels in one building: the Cecil and the Stay On Main, which is a travelers’ hotel targeted towards younger people with bunk beds and more vibrant colors. It occupies several floors of the Cecil Hotel and one of those floors was where Ms. Lam was booked.

I confess that none of the information in the first half of the documentary was news to me as I had followed the case sporadically through the years — and how could I possibly miss it when so many true-crime YouTubers covered the story, promising new developments every year?

That was the hook — a very well done hook — and the line and sinker came in the second half that I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen the documentary but know that everything will be tied neatly at the end.

The ending does not have the sort of bombshell revelation as 2018’s Evil Genius, but it feels like the story has ended and finally, people can move on. It is cathartic and I think the quote below by one of the historians interviewed makes a very good point about the “evil” of the Cecil Hotel and about accountability in social media.

“It’d be easier if we could just tell you the Cecil is haunted and it’s got some sort of uncanny force, but nobody knows that. But there is something haunted about a lot of pain and struggle and people having their lives fall apart in there — not what we normally think of as a ghost, but it does feel different in places where people have suffered,” said Kim Cooper.

Should you watch Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel? Yes, if (like me) you want to get closure for a ghost story which has bothered you for almost a decade.

The documentary is streaming on Netflix.

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