At LA’s infamous Cecil Hotel, how did visitor Elisa Lam die? Netflix’s ‘Crime Scene’ delves into the facts

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

The old Cecil Hotel in downtown LA has a reputation for being one of the most haunted places in the city. Built in the 1920s, the Cecil used to provide cheap rooms for international travelers and people living on Skid Row. 

Over the years, it earned the nickname “Hotel Death.” Richard Ramirez, known as the Night Stalker, slept there after killing people in the 1980s. And the 2013 death of Canadian-born Elisa Lam captured the world’s attention and baffled investigators. 

A new Netflix documentary series, “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel,” retraces Lam’s final moments. It includes interviews with the hotel staff who were on-site that night, the investigators who looked into the case, and the cyber sleuths who tried to solve it. 

According to director Joe Berlinger, Lam’s story is often written off as a paranormal one. With this series, he aims to dive into the hard facts of the incident.  

“We're launching a series now that talks about the location of crimes as opposed to leaning into specific and individual crime,” Berlinger says.

“So what is it about the Cecil Hotel? What are the socioeconomic and perceptual forces that kind of create a place where crimes seem to repeatedly happen?”

Guests at the Cecil Hotel

Former manager Amy Price started working at the Cecil in 2007. She says not long after, a hotel guest died.

“I do remember asking, ‘Does this happen often?’ And the person that I was talking to said, ‘Well, yeah, it does happen a lot.’ I was surprised. I had never experienced anything like that.” 

Since the hotel was half residential, staff had to find a way to make more money, so they designed “Stay On Main,” a hostel marketed toward younger travelers. Lam stayed at that hostel. 

The Cecil Hotel in Downtown LA has a history of death and connections to serial killers, like Richard Ramirez. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021

Elisa Lam’s disappearance 

After failing to check in with her parents, Lam’s disappearance became a case for the Los Angeles Police Department. 

Price says detectives were on-site for weeks, investigating the hotel and reviewing footage. An estimated 20 detectives were initially dispatched on the case.

According to Berlinger, Lam’s case was first considered a missing persons case: “It involved a foreign national, and LAPD really sent a bunch of people out to investigate.”

He says police were stumped after a few days, so they decided to release the last known footage of Lam. It depicted her pacing in and out of a hotel elevator and gesticulating strangely. 

“It just was quite captivating and bizarre. It just went viral. People thought because of the history of the hotel, that somehow something sinister and evil had happened to her,” Berlinger says.

After a few weeks, hotel guests began to complain about low water pressure and strange tasting water. A maintenance worker then discovered Lam’s body in a water tank on the hotel’s roof. 

Clinging to history and telling stories respectfully

Price says the hotel attracted visitors who were trying to solve Lam’s case.

“It was extremely disruptive. From the moment that she was discovered and the circumstances of her death, it became almost like an adult amusement park. It was a circus. I mean, people [were] trying to access the building from the exterior [and] coming in with cameras. It was crazy.”

She adds that the hotel’s history of death and connection to serial killers built a bad reputation for the establishment.

“People like to cling to the past. And I'm not talking about Elisa here. From the moment that happened, it was almost like Richard Ramirez had just checked out the day before. Last time I checked, he was picked up in 1985,” Price says. “They were clinging to some of the stories that had happened way before my time.”

Amy Price, former general manager of the Cecil Hotel, in episode two of “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.” Courtesy of Netflix © 2021.

Berlinger says modern society lives in a world where whoever has the best narrative appears to be telling the truth. In documenting Lam’s or other true crime stories, he says it’s critical to remember the incident’s victim.

“It's not just another story on television. This is the worst moment of their lives. There's an onus upon the makers of true crime, including myself, to tell these stories responsibly. And to write off the tragedy of Elisa Lam as a ghost story or some supernatural event, I think is being disrespectful to the victim,” he says.