Elisa Lam was a Canadian national who had come to Los Angeles on holiday. While in LA, she had been staying at the infamous Cecil Hotel (known to be a dangerous place that had once been inhabited by people such as the Original Nightstalker). On February 19, 2013, her body was discovered by a hotel maintenance worker in one of the hotel’s water tanks.
Elisa had been a student at the University of British Columbia, and she often posted to a Blogspot account, sometimes discussing her struggles with mental illness (having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression). In January of 2012, in one of her posts, she talked about a “relapse,” which had caused her to withdraw from school. Being forced to withdraw from her classes added to her mental state, making her feel “directionless and lost.” She had been prescribed several medications for her mental health issues, and her family has reported that she had a history of not taking her bipolar medicating. As a result of not taking her medication, she had suffered from hallucinations on several occasions. Sometimes these hallucinations would cause her to hide under her bed in an attempt to be safe from them. She had been hospitalized at least once during one of these episodes, but her family has reported that she was not suicidal.
When she took her trip to LA, it is believed that Lam did not know the history of the Cecil Hotel, or the area of Downtown LA where the hotel was located (an area known as Skid Row, which is populated by a large amount of homeless people). It is believed that she may have booked a room there (at least partially) because of the price of the rooms and how affordable they were.
She traveled alone and arrived at the hotel on January 28. At first, she was assigned a shared room on the fifth floor, but her roommates complied about odd behavior from Lam, and she was moved to a room of her own after only two days. According to the manager of the hotel, her roommates stated that she had been leaving notes for them that said things like “go home” and “go away,” and she would not let them into the room without a password.
A few days before she discovered, she attended a taping of “Conan,” but she was escorted off the premises by security for disruptive behavior.
She contacted her parents daily during her trip, but they became worried when she did not contact them on January 31 (she had been scheduled to check out of the Cecil on that day and make her way to San Diego). Worried about her, her family contacted the LAPD to file a missing person report, and they flew to LA to help with the search.
The police searched the hotel as much as they could within the bounds of the law. They searched Lam’s room , and they had dogs go through the hotel (including on the rooftop), but the dogs found nothing of her whereabouts. Sgt Rudy Lopez later admitted that they did not search every room while they were looking through the hotel for her (probable cause kept them out of some areas).
A week after her disappearance (on February 6), the LAPD decided that they needed more help in finding Lam. Flyers with her image were posted in the area where the hotel was located and online, but they had no success. It did, however, bring Lam’s disappearance to the public’s attention.
After another week without any new leads, the LAPD released a CCTV video of Lam that was taken shortly before her disappearance. The video shows Lam behaving oddly; it appears as though she is hiding from someone who may have been in the hall (and out of the camera’s viewpoint)
People on the internet scrutinized the video, becoming suspicious of the fact that it appeared that there was missing time on the video. They also became suspicious of the fact that the elevator doors remained open the entire time that Lam was inside the elevator (when they believed the doors should have begun to close long before they did), and they did not close until after Lam exited the elevator.
Many believed that (from Lam’s behavior) she was speaking to someone in the hall that could not be seen in the video; some people even claim that they could see part of a shoe come into frame.
But despite the amount of people now looking into the case, and the amount of people examining the video, Lam was still not found. It was not until people who were staying at the Cecil began to complain about the water (both its color and its taste) that her body was found in one of the water tanks. She was nude, and it was reported that the cover of the water tank had been closed and locked when she was found (but this particular detail was incorrect).
Lam’s bizarre behavior from the video on the elevator, combined with the police stating that she had been locked inside the water tank caused many people to suspect foul play; the fact that the water tanks should have only been accessible by the hotel’s employees made some believe that she may have been killed by an employee of the Cecil.
But after an extensive investigation of the circumstances of her death, the official report from the police states that her death was accidental. They believe that she was suffering from hallucinations brought on by not taking her bipolar medication, and during the course of her hallucination, she managed to make it onto the roof, strip out of her clothes, and accidentally drown in the water tank (where she had taken refuge from whatever she believed she was seeing).
Not everyone believes that the LAPD’s conclusions are correct; they still believe that Lam was murdered and that someone may be covering it up.
There is an excellent Netflix documentary series about the case that is worth checking out. They examine the history of the case and interview the investigators, the maintenance worker who found her body, and the woman who had been the manager of the hotel at the time that Lam died.