Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Elisa Lam: The Tourist in the Tank

Elisa Lam. Police handout.

Originally published 02/21/2013. 


After two weeks of frantic searching and fruitless tips, 21-year-old Canadian tourist Elisa Lam had seemed to disappear without a trace. She had arrived in Los Angeles on January 26 and checked into the Cecil Hotel downtown with plans to head north to Santa Cruz. Her parents spoke with her everyday when she suddenly stopped calling. When she was found, the shocking circumstances seemed ripped from an episode of Law & Order. Only this time, the death was real.

A week after Lam’s disappearance, the LAPD turned to the public for clues. The tips came in hard and fast, but none of them checked out. Hotel workers said they hadn’t seen her since January 31, and a police canine search of the hotel turned up nothing. The last evidence of Lam alive was in January 31 footage from an elevator surveillance camera. On tape, Lam appears to be acting strangely: pressing buttons, peeking her head out at different floors, seemingly hiding from someone.

Yet it wasn’t until Tuesday, February 19, when hotel residents complained of low water pressure that Lam was found. When a hotel worker went to the roof to check on it, he found a female corpse inside one of the water tanks. Firemen and police rushed to the scene. The tank opening was too small for a firefighter to fit through so the tank had to be sawed open to remove the body. Police had soon identified the body as Lam’s.

The police investigation is in its initial stages–the county coroner has yet to issue a cause of death–so there are many questions yet to be answered. The water tanks themselves were unlocked, but hotel guests do not have roof access privileges. How Lam made her way into the tank remains a mystery. “We’re not ruling out foul play,” LAPD spokesman Rudy Lopez told the Los Angeles Times, conceding that the corpse in the water tank “makes it suspicious.”

What Lam probably didn’t know is that the Cecil Hotel has a long history of housing criminals. The Night Stalker Richard Ramirez stayed there. So did Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger. As recently as 2010, a paramedic was stabbed while answering a distress call; that case remains unsolved.

Hotel guests were less concerned with the Cecil’s history than its current situation. “I’m really disgusted,” said Annette Suzuki a visitor from San Francisco, “Wouldn’t you be if there was a dead body in the water tank you’re drinking from.” Luckily, a Fire Department official said a water sample from the hotel was tested and deemed safe for consumption.

Now it’s up to investigators to determine whether Elisa Lam’s bizarre demise was a strange accident or murder.

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