Crime Scene: The Vanishing at The Cecil Hotel and Losing Elisa Lam

The Elisa Lam case was mysterious, perplexing, and one that received a lot of attention. I’m sure I saw the news reports of her disappearance in 2013, but she resurfaced through paranormal Youtube videos I’m prone to watching late at night. Many accounts speculated that the young woman popping in and out of an elevator in the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles, seemingly interacting with someone off-camera, was dealing with something supernatural. I wasn’t aware of what happened to her until later news reports. It sounded so bizarre, unlike many missing tourist stories that end up in tragedy.

A mini-series just released on Netflix, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel, covers the disappearance of Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian student who decided to see the world, starting in L.A. She stayed at the Cecil Hotel, a place with a notorious past and located in the rougher part of downtown Los Angeles. When she didn’t check in with her family, they began to worry and contacted the L.A. Police, who started a search for her whereabouts. For weeks, the detectives looked through surveillance videos in the hotel, interviewed hotel staff and retraced her steps to places she visited. When other hotel guests noticed their water smelled and had a blackish-brown tinge to it, maintenance discovered Lam’s body in the water tank. Speculation and many theories ensued, creating an online community of internet sleuths determined to figure out why this slight young woman ended up in a water tank. The four-part series gives us a look at Elisa, a bright but lonely young woman ready to take on the world, accounts from detectives who worked the case and the online community who took on the cause of her disappearance and death.

Episode 3 of Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. c. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021

The investigation was heartbreaking because Lam seemed to be alone, and I question the lack of involvement from her friends and family. Their silence made it clear that they wanted nothing to do with the trajectory of the series. Unfortunately, one of the main takeaways for me was how not to “Internet” in this muddled collection of interviews and excerpts from Lam’s Tumblr page. This “internet sleuthing” is a new term to me, but if it’s a means to fame, I’ll stay on the sidelines. I had seen a few videos featuring the elevator footage, and sure, I thought it was strange and mystifying. However, I had no intention of dedicating hours of analysis and posts about my theories. Because they pay people to do that, and they’re called detectives.

The bandwagonism featured shows how foolish these people are, digging into the case as if they were going to solve it. As if they were going to trump years of forensic science schooling and experience on the job sitting in their gaming chairs at their computers and solve the case. I’m sure they jumped at the chance to be a part of the documentary due to the siren song of self-promotion combined with self-importance. The worst of it came out in the bullying of musician Pablo Vergara who goes by his stage name Morbid. Because he didn’t prescribe to mainstream art and the ridiculous amount of overzealous “sleuthing” targeting him, he tried to take his own life after being accused of killing Lam even though he was nowhere near her in 2013. This is inexcusable, and I hope these buffoons feel ashamed for inciting a human being to take their own life.  Highlighting these people should be a warning to those with online personas and the damage they can do, but sadly, the show only gives them a voice and a shot at their 15 minutes of fame with no consequence.

There was a lot of police involvement during Lam’s disappearance, but you have to look at the setting. The Cecil Hotel has a dark history, and the documentary covers it well, talking about the social and economic past of the building with a swirl of urban legend. The Cecil’s home on Skid Row is alarming, and the bureaucratic mishandling of thousands of fringe dwellers and the disregard for human life is laid out for all to see. It also shows how capitalism has a strangle-hold on something that needs to be adjusted to fill a void for public housing and get the vulnerable off the streets.

I hope people who watch Crime Scene: The Vanishing at The Cecil Hotel look past the drawn-out run time and the garbage the internet facilitates to see the loss of humanity this world constantly glosses over. Consider the focus on mental illness, the class disparity and welfare of the homeless, and capitalism that insists on pushing for a bright shiny façade to gloss over the nasty scars of obvious societal decay. And remember the faces of an immigrant family blindsided by their daughter’s mental illness that they perhaps had to manage for her 21 years of life. Their faces at the press conference will haunt me and spoke a thousand words even though they stood silently as the detectives addressed the press about their missing daughter. Let that fuel you to be more caring and see past the screen to the tragic death of a young woman.

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