Elisa Lam was a Canadian lady who was on a road trip in California in 2013. One night, while staying at the Cecil Hotel, she suffered a mental breakdown of some sort, and ended up drowning in the water tank on the roof of the hotel. Before she died, she was caught in the CCTV video cameras of the hotel, acting in a bizarre, creepy manner.
Jake Anderson is the author of the book Gone at Midnight, the first proper, full-length book about the mysterious case. Buy it here.
Thank you, Jake, for taking the time to talk to ForenSeek!
Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m a writer, filmmaker, and activist. Grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas and have moved around quite a bit. I’ve always been fascinated by the vastness of the universe and the philosophies of the mind–and wonder if the two aren’t connected somehow. Currently, I’m focused on non-fiction true crime as a vehicle for psychological truth, social change, and storytelling.
How and where did you first hear about Elisa Lam?
Like most people, I learned of the case upon first viewing the surveillance tape. Shortly after, I discovered her blogs and that led me into a deeper investigation of her death.
Who was she, exactly?
Elisa Lam was an incredibly bright young woman who struggled with bipolar disorder and depression. These psychological battles went on for years, deteriorating her self-esteem, friendships, relationships, school work, etc. Though she had tried many meds, it doesn’t seem as if she found the right combination (many people with a psychiatric disorder, myself included, can testify to how long it can take to find the right pharmaceutical medley for you) and became restless, wanting to travel. She planned a solo trip, her “West Coast tour,” that was probably ill-advised given her state of mind. During this trip, it seems that she went off of her meds to a degree and ended up staying at the Cecil Hotel (renamed Stay On Main), which was one of the worst places she could have stayed at. She was filmed behaving strangely by hotel surveillance on January 31st, 2013, the night she went missing. Two weeks later, her naked corpse was found in one of the hotel’s rooftop water tanks.
The history of the Cecil Hotel has some pretty dark moments. Can you tell us a bit more about these?
The Cecil Hotel has one of the most notorious histories of any hotel in the world. From its very beginning in 1927, the hotel has been the site of countless tragic suicides (dozens have jumped out the windows of the upper floors), mysterious deaths, grisly murders, and resident serial killers. In 1964, “Pigeon Goldie” Osgood, who was known locally for feeding the birds in Pershing Square was stabbed, strangled, raped, and killed in her room at the Cecil. Her killer was never found. The serial killers Richard Ramirez (“The Nightstalker”) and Jack Unterweger (“The Austrian Ghoul”) both lived at the Cecil during parts of their killing sprees. The result of all this tragedy and horror seems to be the widespread belief that the hotel is haunted. After staying there overnight alone twice myself, I can’t with good conscience argue that it’s not. I go into a much more detailed history of the Cecil in Gone At Midnight.
How did that now-infamous elevator footage get out to the public?
This is a great question, one to which I tried but failed to get an answer. The surveillance footage was originally posted on the YouTube channel of Los Angeles journalist Dennis Romero. Romero has refused to answer any questions from me about how he came into possession of the tape. My guess is that the LAPD, for whatever reason, decided to hand it off to him to post for the public to see. It’s a mystery that still nags at me. The footage did not help with the investigation and all it really did was serve as support for LAPD’s eventual cause of death narrative, which was essentially “she climbed into the tank herself because of her bipolar disorder.” But the footage was responsible for stigmatizing and re-victimizing Elisa and, in many ways, it raises more questions than it answers.
Without “spoiling” the theories you present in your book, what do you think is going on in that video? Why is she acting like that?
This is a question I’ve wrestled with for 5 years. When I first began writing, my goal was to use Elisa’s tragic death as a case study in the stigmatization of mental illness. I believed her death probably was an accident and I wanted to analyze the ways in which society is in denial about the dangers of bipolar and depression. But the more I looked into it and began discovering new sources of information, my opinion changed. I now believe that there are several truths going on at once. In that surveillance footage, Elisa was most likely in the throes of a manic phase or a “mixed episode” that definitely disabled her judgment and caused some of her “strange” behavior; I ALSO think she was being pursued by someone at the hotel. Additionally, and I go into way more detail as to my reasoning in the book, there is evidence that the LAPD and the Cecil corporate management engaged in some kind of a conspiracy to cover up what really happened.
The Japanese horror film Dark Water has a bizarre “tie” to the mystery. What is it?
This case was riddled with synchronicities and strange coincidences. One of them was its eerie parallels to the Japanese film Dark Water and the American remake of the same name. Though it was made almost a decade before her death, the film seems to imagine some of the exact circumstances and details of Elisa’s death, down to the color of her hoodie, her “fall” into an apartment building’s rooftop water tank, and the water leaking down into the rooms. There are even shots involving the hotel’s surveillance cameras.
There are also several other bizarre coincidences to the case, which you discuss in your book. Can you tell us about a few more of them?
The synchronicities surrounding Elisa’s death represent one of the reasons why I think this case has burrowed so deeply into our subconscious. Does synchronicity represent some kind of synergistic connection between our internal thoughts and dreams and the external universe, which, after all, we are both physical and subjective manifestations of?
The weirdest synchronicity of the Elisa Lam case, in my opinion, is the fact that there was an outbreak of TB (tuberculosis) among the homeless population in downtown LA at the time Elisa was staying at the Cecil. The outbreak was so bad the CDC dispatched federal scientists to try and contain it. It just so turns out that the name of the test used for this particular strain of TB is: the LAM-ELISA test. It wasn’t named after her; it already existed. It also turns out that this test was first formulated at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, where Elisa Lam both lived and attended undergraduate college. It’s just a mindbogglingly bizarre coincidence which, when added to the other synchronicities, makes me wonder whether her case might represent some dark nexus in space-time.
I gave the followers of my Instagram and the readers of this blog a chance to ask you about the case. Here are their questions.
What caused her mental health to decline so rapidly?
This is hard to answer definitively because we don’t know when she stopped taking her bipolar med and her mood stabilizer. I’ve done extensive research on such meds and what I routinely hear is that it’s very dangerous for someone with bipolar to only be on an antidepressant without a stabilizer because it can cause rapid cycling (a term for hypomania). Based on the toxicology report, it appears she had stopped taking both her Lamictal and her mood stabilizer and was only taking Wellbutrin, an antidepressant.
We also don’t know comprehensively what was going on in her life. Based on her blog entries, which constitute hundreds of single-spaced pages and which I read through several times, it seems Elisa was very lonely, felt very alienated from her friends, was having a difficult time concentrating and completing her schoolwork (in fact, she had even temporarily dropped out of school) and had recently ended a relationship. These things combined with worsening bipolar disorder and depression can be a potent mixture for a 21-year-old (or anyone really).
Any truth behind the idea that she was playing the “Elevator Game” during that bizarre video footage?
This is one of those idiosyncrasies of the case: it has attracted an incredible diversity of strange theories. To be honest, I’d be VERY surprised if the Elevator Game was real, but I will say this….there is definitely some strange stuff going on in that hotel.
There is a theory that the woman in the elevator isn’t even Elisa Lam. Any thoughts?
The doppelganger theory doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I heard some very eccentric theories about this, but at the end of the day, Elisa was a real person whose naked body turned up inside a rooftop water tank. That’s enough mystery for me.
Is there additional video footage that has never been made available to the public?
Yes, the LAPD detectives, Wallace Tennelle and Greg Stearns (who refuse to be interviewed about the case), even publicly stated as such. Apparently, there is footage of Elisa entering the Cecil with two men, who handed her a box and then left. Why they didn’t release this footage but did release the elevator footage is yet another mystery in the case. I’d be willing to bet there is other footage, too. Unfortunately, I doubt we’ll ever get to see it.
Is there any “paranormal” aspect to the case?
Even though I run a site called theghostdiaries.com, I was skeptical of this for a while. It takes a lot for me to believe something without scientific evidence. But after discovering some fascinating new scientific research on human consciousness and staying at the Cecil Hotel twice by myself, I started to believe that this hotel has kind of a mind of its own. After extensively researching its history, I think it’s very possible that the building holds onto its past trauma; maybe it’s the pain of the people who killed themselves or were murdered there and the evil of the killers who stayed there that somehow are imprinted in that space, surviving across the gulfs of time, and can infect other new tenants, especially people already experiencing psychic pain. I talk way more about this in the book, including my own specific experiences there that changed the way I think about the paranormal question.
Did all the hotel employees have alibis? Are any of them potential suspects?
One of the reasons I started looking for new evidence is that I couldn’t believe so little was known about a case that is so widely discussed. There was virtually no information on who the cops interviewed and what if any evidence was found inside the hotel. It’s hard to briefly summarize my discoveries but I will say this: there’s reason to believe sexual predators have worked in the hotel; there’s reason to believe someone who worked there accompanied Elisa to the roof that night; and there’s reason to believe that the maintenance worker who first discovered Elisa’s body may have perjured himself in his deposition and may have been paid to leave the country shortly thereafter.
Is it true that the water tank was locked from the outside? Also, why do you think she went to the roof, and not downstairs and out of the building?
To answer the second question first, I believe Elisa was restless and roaming around the hotel. The upper floors are reserved for long-stay tenants so it’s weird she was up there. People who believe in the paranormal narrative might ask if she was drawn there by the dark energy of Richard Ramirez, who lived on the same floor, the 14th, where the surveillance footage was filmed. People more interested in the homicide narrative might ask if a hotel employee offered to show her the roof. These are questions I explore at length in my book and I offer some new observations and some anecdotal evidence on how she got up there.
The water tank and whether it was locked (or more accurately, whether its lid was open or closed) always struck me as one of the most important questions. If Elisa climbed into the tank on her own and was accidentally trapped there, it would make more sense for the lid to be open because it would be extremely difficult if not impossible for her to have closed it over herself while getting in. On the other hand, if foul play was involved, it would make a lot more sense for the hatch to be closed. Going into the case, the reports were that the lid was open when maintenance worker Santiago Lopez discovered her body. However, I received a contradicting report from a former LAPD first responder. This is still an open question, but the evidence I turned up adds a surprising new wrinkle to the case.
Was there any forensic evidence on her body when it was discovered?
To my knowledge, nothing except a gravel-like “particulate” that has never been explained. However, in the book I outline several reasons why I am very skeptical of not only the autopsy and the coroner who conducted it, but the entire investigation, and the detectives who I think botched it.
And finally, my regular questions for all my guests:
Your top 3 movies?
Pulp Fiction, The Shining, There Will Be Blood
Your top 3 books?
The Trial (Franz Kafka), Ubik (Philip K. Dick), The Stranger Beside Me (Ann Rule)
Your top 3 albums?
Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon, The Beatles – The White Album, Radiohead – Kid