The Strange Case of Elisa Lam

The mysterious death of Elisa Lam gets some clarity with a fresh look at victimology and behavioral profiling.

Victim & Timeline

Elisa Lam (Cantonese name Lam Ho Yi), 21: January 31, 2013

Victim Narrative

Lam, the daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong, was a student at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Lam traveled in January, 2013 to Southern California for what she dubbed her “West Coast Tour.” Lam had plans to visit San Diego, L.A., Santa Cruz, and San Francisco and was tracking her movements on her Tumblr blog. Lam traveled solo, and utilized city buses and Amtrak for transportation.

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Elisa Lam, center

On January 26th, Lam arrived in L.A. and checked into The Cecil Hotel, an infamous hotel located near Skid Row. The Cecil Hotel (now renamed Stay On Main) was originally opened in 1927 with 700 guest rooms; it now has 600 guest rooms. Even prior to Liam’s Hotel Cecil (costados) (001)highly-publicized death, the hotel was the site of several notable occurrences: it was supposedly the last place Elizabeth Short (aka The Black Dahlia) stayed prior to her 1947 brutal murder, and multiple persons committed suicide at The Cecil beginning in 1931; further, serial killers Richard Ramirez and Jack Untermeyer were known to room at The Cecil. Since its opening, there have been at least 15 suicides or unexplained deaths at The Cecil, in addition to a number of murders and other crimes.

 

Lam had been previously diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had been prescribed Wellbutrin, Effexor, Lamictal, and Seroquel (these fall into the class of drugs known as antidepressants, SSNRI’s, anticonvulsants, and antipsychotics — all four drugs are common in the treatment of bipolar-spectrum disorders). Her family reported she had no history of suicidality or attempts but had previously gone missing for a short time. Lam had a history of struggling academically when she experienced a relapse in her mental health functioning and was known to blog about these struggles in her online blog.

Disappearance & Discovery

Lam contacted her parents by phone every day while she was on her trip. After checking in to The Cecil Hotel on January 26th, Lam was expected to stay until January 31st, at which point she intended to leave and head for Santa Cruz. When Lam’s parents did not hear from her, they alerted authorities and flew from British Columbia to help search for her. The manager of a local bookstore reported seeing Lam earlier in the day and stated that she was alone and “outgoing, very lively, very friendly.” Others who saw Lam that day similarly stated she did not appear to be in the company of any other person. Police carried out a perfunctory search of the hotel; they did not have legal jurisdiction to search all rooms and areas. They found nothing, even after bringing in search and rescue dogs to aid them. A week later, with no leads, the police began posting flyers of the missing young woman around the neighborhood and the case began attracting media attention.

After yet another week with no leads, the LAPD publicly released the last known footage of Lam which was captured by one of The Cecil’s CCTV cameras. The footage showed Lam, apparently alone, in an elevator. She appeared to be behaving strangely.

According to Wikipedia:

“In the two-and-a-half minute clip, the camera at one of the elevator cab’s rear corners looks down from the ceiling, offering a view not just of its interior but the hallway outside. It is somewhat grainy, and the timestamp at the bottom is obscured. At the start, Lam enters, clad in a red zippered hooded sweatshirt over a gray T-shirt, with black shorts and sandals. She enters from the left and goes to the control panel, appears to select several floors and then steps back to the corner. After a few seconds during which the door fails to close, she steps up to it, leans forward so her head is through the door, looks in both directions, and then quickly steps back in, backing up to the wall and then into the corner near the control panel. The door remains open. She walks to it again and stands in the doorway, leaning on the side. Suddenly she steps out into the hall, then to her side, back in, looking to the side, then back out. She then steps sideways again, and for a few seconds she is mostly invisible behind the wall she has her back to just outside. The door remains open. Her right arm can be seen going up to her head, and then she turns to re-enter the cab, putting both hands on the side of the door. She then goes to the control panel, presses many more buttons, some more than once, and then returns to the wall she had come into the elevator from, putting both hands over her ears again briefly as she walks back to the section of wall she had been standing against before. The door remains open. She turns to her right and begins rubbing her forearms together, then waves her hands out to her sides with palms flat and fingers outstretched, while bowing forward slightly and rocking gently. This can all be seen through the door, which remains open. After she backs to the wall again and walks away to the left, it finally closes.”

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Click to Watch Footage of Elisa Lam in the elevator at The Cecil Hotel

The footage was viewed extensively and spread internationally. Theories abounded as to why Lam was behaving in such a bizarre manner. Some attributed her behavior to paranoia related to her underlying mental health issues, others believed Lam was being stalked by a killer and trying to elude him or her, still others believed she was playing a game. Some theories, likely based on The Cecil’s sordid history, even supposed she may have become possessed. Other viewers saw the clear markers of substance use — perhaps ecstasy or another hallucinogen; this theory was, of course, legitimized by the fact that The Cecil was located near Skid Row and drugs were abundantly available both within The Cecil’s walls and on the streets outside. Some viewers promoted a theory of conspiracy, alleging that parts of the video had been edited or deleted for nefarious purposes. Regardless, Lam remained missing.

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In the ensuing days, guests at The Cecil began complaining to management about issues with the water: some experienced low water pressure while others had black, foul-smelling water flowing from their faucets. An employee, looking for the source of the water problems, went to the roof of The Cecil to examine the four 1,000-gallon water tanks that were stored there. Inside one of the tanks, the employee discovered Lam’s body floating, face-up, approximately one foot below the water’s surface. The water tank, at the time of her discovery, was half- to three-quarters full of water. Lam’s body was removed from the tank by responding officers and an autopsy was conducted that listed accidental drowning as the cause of death with bipolar disorder as a contributing factor.

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Image courtesy internet forum user ‘Socalniner’

The autopsy report indicated that Lam had been found nude in the water tank. Clothing which appeared consistent with what she was wearing in the elevator video was found floating in the tank next to her body as was her room key and watch. The clothing was coated in a “sand-like particulate” and there was no evidence of sexual or physical assault.

The Unexplained

  • Q: How did Lam gain access to the rooftop? The Cecil’s doors and stairs to the roof were supposed to be locked at all times. Only employees were supposed to have the necessary passcode and keys to gain entry. Presumably, security to the rooftop should have been tight given the neighborhood the hotel was located in and the hotel’s history of suicides and crimes. If someone had attempted to force entry to the rooftop, an alarm was supposed to sound and would ring continuously until it was shut off. A: Lam may have accessed the roof via a fire escape. It is also possible that human error left access open to the rooftop either through negligence or on purpose (i.e. either forgetting to lock a
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    Elevators at The Cecil showing evacuation routes with fire escapes clearly marked

    oor or secure an alarm system or intentionally propping a door open so as to sneak a smoke break). A video was made following Lam’s death in which a person scaled the fire escape to the roof of The Cecil, proving that it was, indeed possible.

 

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Close-up of evacuation routes with 3 fire escapes clearly marked

 

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Person showing easy access to fire escape at The Cecil Hotel
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External view of fire escape with access to rooftop. Image courtesy internet forum user ‘smash the stack’
  • Q: How did Lam get into the gigantic water tank? How did she push the heavy lid aside and climb in? A: In the same video mentioned above, it was shown that two of the water tank lids were open. And, this, after Lam’s death and own breach of the rooftop. It is possible the water tank was already open when Lam climbed to the roof.
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Image courtesy internet forum user ‘smash the stack’
  • Q: But, how did she scale the water tank? The tanks are 4×8-foot cylinders situated on concrete blocks that employees can only access by bringing an unattached 10-foot ladder to the side of. The tanks have no immediate access. A: According to official reports, Lam did not use a ladder to get inside the tank. If she had, the ladder would have been found nearby. The below photo shows an aerial view of The Cecil’s rooftop. Note the red ladder on the upper right side of the frame. It is possible Lam could have climbed this ladder to the highest part of the roof and jumped down onto the top of the water tanks and then transversed to one of the open tanks and climbed inside. It is also possible Lam was experiencing an increase in energy (note description by local shop owner of her behaving in a “very lively” manner just prior to her disappearance) as well as an increase in strength due to a possible manic state. Lam may have found a way, with this enormous energy and strength, to scale the sides of a tank when she (and any normally-functioning human) otherwise would not have been physically able to.
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Note red ladder/staircase
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Image courtesy La Sociedad Supersecreta
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Image showing scale — it would not have been a far jump for Lam to the top of the water tanks
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Again, note scale
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Note scale
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In this image, note the red staircase. While it does not go all the way to the roof of the outbuilding, there is clearly an attached red ladder so a person could still access that roof and jump down on to the water tanks.
  • Q: Is there any other way she could have accessed the water tank? A: Yes. Some photos show what appears to be a ladder chained to at least one of the water tanks. It is unclear why so many reports say the tanks were inaccessible without a separate, 10-foot ladder while some photos show a ladder attached to one of the tanks.
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Image courtesy internet forum user ‘smash the stack’
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Image courtesy internet forum user ‘smash the stack’
  • Q: Was someone chasing Lam? Was she trying to hide from someone? A: As a mental health professional, I have seen many people suffering from a manic episode. They present nearly identical to how Lam presents in the elevator video: jerky, suspicious movements, paranoia, disorganization yet appearing singularly-focused (such as when she presses multiple elevator buttons but appears intent on some kind of agenda or direction), appearing to respond to internal stimuli (hallucinations), and bizarre behavior. There is no evidence anyone was chasing her. No one else is seen on the video at any point in time. No one was seen in Lam’s company in the hours preceding her disappearance. There was no evidence left behind from Lam (a note, a phone call to her parents, etc) that she was being chased or stalked. Lam never attempted to go the ground floor of the hotel and alert security. Lam never called 911. All signs point to a manic episode with paranoia, delusions, and possible hallucinatory features. Lam was described as notably excited and social just prior to her disappearance. She was seen purchasing gifts for her family (persons experiencing mania often engage in high-risk behaviors such as spending sprees — climbing a fire escape to the roof of a 14-story hotel and going inside a water tank would also be consistent with high-risk behavior). Time of year might also be an factor: Lam died at the end of January, a time of year when seasonal affective components such as lack of sunshine and Vitamin D deficiencies are highest following a long winter. Given that Lam was from Canada, I do not discount this as a possible contributor to her apparent mental health relapse. Additionally, Lam was traveling and outside her normal surroundings and routine. This can often cause people to forget to take their medications and I question whether she missed some doses of her prescriptions, further contributing to an onset of symptoms.
  • Q: Why did Lam remove her clothes in the water tank? A: This could have been the result of her hallucinatory symptoms — hallucinations are not always visual. Sometimes, they are auditory (sound), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), or tactile (touch). If Lam was experiencing tactile hallucinations, she may have removed her clothes in response to those perceived sensations. In example, if she was over-heating either as a result of tactile hallucinations or because she was literally hot from scaling the fire escape and rooftop ladder, she might have decided to go skinny-dipping to cool off. She also may have removed her clothing once in the tank because the water soaking into the clothes was weighing her down and she was trying to escape. A final consideration is hypothermia and paradoxical undressing: when a person’s core body temperature drops to 95 degrees Fahrenheit or below, people start experiencing symptoms of hypothermia including movement problems, confusion, stumbling, slurred speech, and may appear as if they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. One of the symptoms of hypothermia is paradoxical undressing, in which a severely chilled person experiences a hot flash as the result of vasoconstriction — the body’s last-ditch effort to conserve energy in a fight to survive the frigid conditions. This leads to hypothermic people stripping most or all of their clothes off in response to the hot flash. Any one of these factors may have caused Lam to strip nude.
  • Q: Why did Lam go in the water tank in the first place? A: Another symptom of hypothermia is terminal burrowing, which resembles the behavior mammals engage in when tucking away to hibernate through the winter. Humans suffering from hypothermia have been found in small, enclosed spaces such as under a bed or behind a dresser. Terminal burrowing is not well-understood or researched but, given that it is associated with end-of-life behavior, I don’t think it inconceivable that Lam’s primal brain stem activity nudged her to seek a ‘safe’ hiding place from whatever she feared was after her. Given that the water tank was a dark, enclosed space, Lam may have been drawn to it if she was succumbing to her mania-induced hallucinations. The lowest temperature recorded in Los Angeles on January 31, 2013 was 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Hypothermia is not known to set in at this high a temperature and the winds were calm on the day in question. If she engaged in terminal burrowing it was out of fear of something chasing her, not as a result of hypothermia — the hypothermia, IF that were a factor, would have set in once she was immersed in the water.
  • Q: Couldn’t drugs have caused symptoms and behavior similar to mania? Could drugs have contributed to Lam’s death? A: Drugs can certainly induce symptoms similar to mania (excessive energy, super-human strength, excitability, paranoia, hallucinations, etc). No illicit substances were found in Lam’s autopsy tests. Some persons argue that the substances could have broken down while Lam was immersed in the tank water or that they were substances that a routine autopsy would not have identified. There is no evidence that Lam used drugs at any point in her life or that this would have been a behavior consistent with her normal actions or character.
  • Q: What happened to Lam’s cell phone? A: No one knows. It was not found with her body or personal effects. Some theorize it was stolen around the time of her disappearance and death. Others suppose Lam herself left or dropped it somewhere in her disorganized and frantic state.
  • Q: Who updated Lam’s blog after her death? A: No one knows. Perhaps it was the person who found or stole her cell phone. Perhaps a friend or family member who had the log-in information but, for whatever reason, remains anonymous. It might also be the result of a skilled online hacker.

Theory

Elisa Lam was suffering a relapse in her bipolar disorder symptoms. Given her age, there is also the possibility she was experiencing break-through symptoms of another disorder, such as schizophrenia (the average age of onset for schizophrenia symptoms in females is 25-years old; Lam was 21). Whether caused by bipolar-spectrum or schizophrenic-spectrum symptoms, Lam was likely experiencing paranoia, cognitive disorganization, and an increase in energy. We don’t know what happened in the days prior to her disappearance but it is possible Lam also experienced insomnia, which is common in these disorders, and the lack of sleep would have compounded her confusion.

Because Lam was traveling and in unfamiliar surroundings, she may have strayed from her normal routine and forgotten to take her psychiatric medication which may have encouraged a break-through of manic and psychotic symptoms. Additionally, the time of year and a possible Vitamin D deficiency due to lack of sunshine may have exacerbated her pre-existing mood disorder.

Lam likely climbed out of an accessible window onto a fire escape and scaled to the roof of the building. From there, I believe she climbed the red staircase and ladder to the highest roof point and jumped down from the outbuilding on to the top of the water tanks. I believe at least one of the water tanks had its lid left open, as this was apparently the case even after her gruesome death and the hotel was aware of the oversight. I also believe the alarm had not been properly set. Running from imaginary demons, Lam climbed inside the water tank for shelter and disrobed either due to the cold temperature of the water (paradoxical undressing) or because her water-logged clothes were impeding her ability to escape. Either way, Lam succumbed to the elements inside and drowned.

Elisa’s story is a tragic, but cautionary, tale — monitor your loved ones closely if they have a history of mental health issues, especially if they are in their late teens/early 20s when break-through symptoms tend to first occur. And, do not let a loved one with known mental health issues travel to a foreign place alone. Perhaps the saving grace in this sad story is that Elisa’s unfortunate demise might serve to prevent someone else’s.

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