Timeline: The strange case at the center of Netflix’s Cecil Hotel docuseries
The chilling death of Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian tourist whose body was discovered in the water tank of a Los Angeles hotel, sparked a global frenzy in 2013 — not to mention a flurry of conspiracy theories, hatched from a disturbing elevator surveillance video that captured her shortly before she vanished.
And a new Netflix series is putting the mysterious case back in the spotlight.
Already a major supplier of true-crime programming, the streamer‘s anthology docuseries “Crime Scene” traces the mythology behind the locations of notorious contemporary cases. The Cecil Hotel, the infamous L.A. lodging (more recently known as Stay on Main) with a sordid and eerie past, kicks off the first season.
Directed by Joe Berlinger, the four-part “The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” explores the troubled past of the seedy budget hotel located in downtown’s skid row. Built in the 1920s, the hotel has been the site of numerous unsolved murders and multiple suicides and served as the sometime home of serial killers Jack Unterweger and Richard “Night Stalker” Ramirez — before shifting focus to the mysterious disappearance and death of Lam.
A student at the University of British Columbia, Lam came to Los Angeles from Vancouver on Jan. 26, 2013. She was last seen Jan. 31 inside the elevator of the hotel.
Berlinger previously directed Netflix’s “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” and “Crime Scene” counts Ron Howard and Brian Grazer among its executive producers.
Here is a selection of the Times’ coverage of the case — and what’s become of the hotel since.
The first season of the streamer’s new anthology docuseries, “Crime Scene,” falls too in love with the Cecil’s lore to tell its central story effectively.
Feb. 20, 2013: Woman’s body found in hotel’s water tank
Following complaints about flooding and weak water pressure from residents of the Cecil Hotel, a hotel maintenance worker inspects one of the large metal water cisterns on the roof. There, he discovers the body of a woman in her 20s at the bottom of the tank. The body was later identified as Lam.
“We’re not ruling out foul play,” LAPD Sgt. Rudy Lopez said at the time, noting that the location of the remains was “suspicious.”
Only employees had access to the roof through a locked door and via fire escape. The door was equipped with an alarm system that would notify the hotel that someone was up there, according to Lopez.
February 21, 2013: Autopsy inconclusive on woman found in hotel water tank
After the completion of an autopsy on Lam’s body, Los Angeles County coroner’s spokesman Ed Winter does not say whether the examination found visible signs of trauma or whether coroner’s investigators had determined how Lam got into the water tank or how long she may have been inside. Winter says toxicology tests, which will take six to eight weeks to complete, would help determine if Lam was taking medication or another substance at the time of her death and if so, whether it was at therapeutic levels.
February 26, 2013: Elisa Lam’s unexplained death draws attention, theories in China
The mysterious case of Lam’s death attracts international attention, particularly in Canada and China, where her family is originally from. When a surveillance video released by Los Angeles police shows Lam in a hotel elevator pushing buttons for multiple floors and stepping out of the elevator and waving her arms, amateur sleuths on the internet begin posting theories about what might have happened to Lam. The elevator surveillance video goes viral on the Chinese video site Youku.com, with more than three million views and 40,000 comments in a 10-day span.
Netflix’s four-part docuseries “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” deftly captures a time and place that many Angelenos will never forget.
Los Angeles County coroner’s officials determine drugs did not contribute to Lam’s death and a medical examination found no visible signs of trauma. Instead, officials ruled that Lam died of an accidental drowning.
Sony Pictures Entertainment and Matt Tolmach Productions acquired rights to the screenplay “The Bringing,” which would focus on a detective’s mysterious encounters as he investigates Lam’s death. (By 2016, it was reported that Sony Pictures had dropped the project, which was slated to star Michael Peña.)
April 4, 2014: Plan to turn Cecil Hotel into homeless housing is withdrawn
A plan to convert 384 rooms in the Cecil Hotel into small efficiencies for homeless people, with on-site counseling and mental health services, collapses in the face of opposition from downtown Los Angeles business leaders and social service providers, backed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who argue the neighborhood is oversaturated with homeless housing and other services.
After signing a 99-year ground lease with the building’s owner, a New York City developer puts up $100 million to renovate the Cecil into a hip boutique hotel — on par with the $199 a night Ace Hotel a few blocks away — and micro rental units, part of a development boom sweeping downtown. In 2017, the City Council voted to name the hotel, opened in 1924, a Los Angeles landmark.
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