Kevin McClintock: Book explores the mystery of Elisa Lam's 2013 death

Book cover

Murder mysteries fascinate me. Though I love reading and writing horror, the books that have spooked me to the core have been works of nonfiction — Ann Rule’s “The Stranger Beside Me” and Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City” are two that come to mind. As Mark Twain put it best: “Truth is stranger than fiction.”

A murder mystery that has fascinated me for years has to do with a Canadian tourist named Elisa Lam. Lam chose to tour California by her lonesome back in 2013. For some inexplicable reason, she chose to stay at the former Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, a 600-room beast of a building that was home to two serial killers (including the Night Strangler, Richard Ramirez) and marred by a number of suicides.

The 21-year-old checked into the hotel on Jan. 26. She was last seen alive on the last day of January. During the second week of February, tenants at the Cecil filed complaints concerning low water pressure and contaminated drinking and bathing water, stained red and reeking of decay. On Feb. 19, Lam’s body was found floating face-up, naked, inside one of the hotel’s four water tanks located on the roof. The autopsy report listed her death as accidental.

This official decision likely would have been accepted if it hadn’t been for several minutes of security camera footage of Lam inside an elevator that went viral in 2013. The unsettling and eerie video from the night of Jan. 31 showed Lam hitting multiple floor buttons, cowering in the elevator’s corner, sliding playfully along one of the walls, ducking in and out of the opened elevator doorway, looking to her left down the hallway. At one point, she can be seen in the hallway, speaking as if to a person standing off-camera, her arms waving and her hands making odd, grotesque gestures. She finally disappears from view down the 14th floor’s hallway, as the elevator door closes. End of video.

So what happened to Lam, and why was she acting so strangely? How did she get from the 14th floor to the rooftop water tank without setting off an alarm attached to the roof’s access door? Why did she decide to climb inside the water tank, naked, to begin with — clutching her clothes and hotel room key card? Was Lam’s elevator footage the result of her bipolar disorder gone amok? Worse, had she been trying to escape or hide inside the elevator from some unseen assailant(s)? Or was it supernatural forces at work — or even possession by a dark entity?

Thankfully, investigative journalist Jake Anderson published a comprehensive book about the mysterious death of Elisa Lam earlier this year, “Gone At Midnight,” that I recently picked up at the Joplin Public Library. It’s already high on my list of favorite reads of 2020.

Anderson spent years studying Lam — both the person and the unknown circumstances surrounding her death. He poured over her blog accounts, retraced her journey from Canada to L.A., stayed several times inside the Cecil, roamed its century-old hallways, spoke to as many hotel tenants and employees as he could — he even ventured up onto the roof for a look-see at the water tanks. It’s a fascinating journey and a personal one as well. Not only does Anderson speak about his own personal battles with depression, he empathizes with Lam’s bipolar challenges in a sympathetic voice that resonates with readers. His humanizing approach is refreshing, and I wasn’t expecting it.

So — how did Lam die? I think everyone has their own opinion. But the one thing everybody agrees with is that Lam didn’t die an accidental death, which is what Anderson supports in his book. In life, I’m a big believer in Occam’s razor, meaning the simpler explanations concerning something mysterious are more likely to be correct than more elaborate or wild postulations. But I agree with Anderson and almost everyone else in that Occam’s razor simply doesn’t apply in the Elisa Lam case. Why? Because once you reach page 300 in Anderson’s book, when all the facts are laid out in precise, journalistic detail, there’s just no way anyone, including myself, could support the theory that Lam climbed up onto the Cecil’s roof by herself under her own free will — and without triggering the door’s alarm — climbed to the top of the water tank, wrenched open its heavy door, took off all her clothes, and jumped inside for a midnight swim. This justification, pretty much outlined by the coroner’s report, simply doesn’t make a lick of sense.

However, Anderson also dismisses some of the more far-reaching causes floating out there in cyberspace: that Lam died because of supernatural causes or she was possessed by a dark, demonic spirit or she was the pawn in some Satanist group’s bloody ritual that allegedly meets regularly at the Cecil.

Anderson is convinced that Lam was a victim of foul play, that one or more persons, perhaps employed by the Cecil itself as security guards or maintenance workers, took advantage of Lam’s bipolar behavior and coerced or convinced her to join them on the roof before killing her and dumping her body inside the water tank. This would explain why so many people believe the security footage of Lam inside the elevator had been tampered with, deliberately slowed down to cover up the fact that small portions of the 4-minute tape had been removed — perhaps because those brief portions showed the body or face of the killer(s)? This would also explain, Anderson said, why no alarm was ever triggered in the front office when the roof was accessed, because someone held the key to turn the alarm off. It also explains why the heavy door to the infamous water tank was closed, something that was impossible for Lam, plunging into the cistern, to have accomplished by herself.

So there you have it, folks. One of the most thorough investigations by a journalist involving one of the most fascinating murder mysteries of the last 20 years explained — as best as possible, of course.

I highly recommend this book. Check it out at the Joplin Public Library when you get the chance.

Address correspondence to Kevin McClintock, c/o The Joplin Globe, Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802 or email kmcclintock@joplinglobe.com.

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