Elisa Lam Tragedy - The How and the Why...

Yes, Elisa Lam’s sad end has been covered from stem to stern over the turbulent internet waves; from video to book, from blog to magazine article, from breaking news to final op-eds, but as with all ho
rrendous ends, red herring fish jump and conspiracy theorists rant, when all the while there’s a calm, quiet, and cold end to this woeful tale.

Beyond the obvious levels of this tragedy, of which there are many, one issue hasn’t been touched on enough, and that’s the “naive traveller” risk.

The Lam’s originated from Hong Kong, so I’m sure the family was very comfortable in an urban setting, but Hong Kong and Vancouver, Canada are NOT Los Angeles.

There’s always been a higher risk inherent in the City of Angels, at least in terms of naive travelers heading there for the very first time. Wonder and excitement often drown out the dangers that manifest in the dry desert winds and swirl in certain sections of town. There have been cases where tourists have accidentally taken the wrong off-ramp and ended up in perilous neighbourhoods only to have their rental car jacked, receiving a bullet to the head as thanks.

There are rules to this star-struck city:

·         Neighbourhoods you shouldn’t frequent.

·         Streets you shouldn’t walk.

·         And hotels you shouldn’t enter.

And that’s true even if you’re a big burly man travelling in a group of big burly men, much less a petite young woman travelling solo with an unstable mind.

The greatest regret I feel in all of this is that Elisa was not informed. I get that she was 21, legally able to go as she pleased, and obviously on a student’s budget. I get all that. I’ve been 21 and a student, too. You think you’re invincible and the lack of money won’t hinder you one bit. You know you’ll get by on your sparkling wit and smile. And with that kind of thinking, and God’s good grace, you will do just fine in locales like San Diego and Santa Cruz, but it’ll get you killed in L.A.

My Traveller’s Motto Heading into That Town: if it’s not a 5-star hotel and a reputable town car company escorting you there, then land at LAX, rent your own damn car, and get the hell out of Dodge before sundown.

But I was a well-traveled youth. I had been taking trips with my parents since I was a toddler. I knew the rules of the foreign road. I knew what I could do, when and where, and I was doubly careful when I travelled alone. You can be an independent, feminist free-spirit all you want. Heck, you can even channel Gloria Steinem. But the reality is that men can get away with pushing the solo traveller envelope far more than women. It has nothing to do with capability and everything to do with looking vulnerable. A single young woman trekking alone is like a baby impala on the Serengeti to a starving lion. Is this fair? No. But when your life is on the line — as is the case if you travel solo to risky places — that’s not the time to be making a feminist statement.

Courtesy Country Living Magazine

A Cold Hard Fact: A young woman like Elisa Lam, travelling alone with unchecked emotional issues is no match for anyone in L.A., much less the people who populate South Main near the Cecil Hotel.

To be clear, I am not assigning blame.

This article is a warning to all who come after Elisa.

If one good thing can come from this senseless death, let it be that no other youth dies in a similar way. If you are female and itching to roam, take the gift Elisa is offering you. If she were here today, Elisa would blog from the highest website that no amount of adventure nor escape nor feminist statement made is worth your life. If the name Elisa Lam becomes synonymous with the phrase, “Don’t Go,” then her death will not have been in vain.

The question remains… did Elisa’s family know the risk she was taking? I suspect they did.

But their hands were tied. This tragedy was not their fault.

Elisa was 21. She was an adult by all legal definitions. If Elisa had the means and the opportunity to go, there was nothing they could do to stop her.

What I know in my gut, though, is that her family was on pins and needles every minute of every hour Elisa was gone. And with her psychological issues added to the mix… I cannot imagine their terror at what might happen. I think it’s fair to say that David and Yinna waited by their phone for Elisa’s next call, hoping to God that she stayed safe from one check-in to the next. The moment the next call didn’t come, my feminine intuition says Yinna knew. She sensed her baby was in harm’s way, and there was nothing she could do about it. In the LAPD press conference, her expression, to me, is one of anger and sorrow — anger at herself for not stopping her girl, anger at Elisa for going, and excruciating pain that no matter her emotions or what happened next, nothing could turn back the clock. Yinna would never again see her daughter’s sweet smile nor feel her warm hugs nor hear Elisa tell her mother she was loved. That’s the kind of hurt that never ends. Errant decisions made by an impetuous girl can produce eternal scars.

The immaturity of youth, travelling alone, and being of such a slight build, mixed with little money for accommodation and missed prescribed psychotropic drugs made for the proverbial perfect storm. You may not see them with your eyes, but storms brew often in LaLaLand. The moment Elisa boarded that plane at Vancouver International Airport, the water in the Cecil cistern began to vibrate. Fate was fixed and the clock was ticking, and nothing and no one could stem that deadly tide. Elisa’s “West Coast Tour” ended before it ever began.

I am not surprised the Lam family has made no further inquiries concerning Elisa’s death.

They and the LAPD know what happened.

Should the family have had their day in court vis-à-vis the culpability trial of the Cecil Hotel? Yes.

The fact that on any given day,

·         hotel floor windows were left open to access the many stairwells that reached the roof;

·         cistern lids were unlatched and/or unlocked 20 lb. caps anyone could have removed;

·         tank openings were wide enough for even a grown man to climb through;

·         and a ladder was within easy reach to climb those cisterns.

That hazardous mix spells in any Canadian court, at least, negligence causing bodily harm. The only shady part of this entire tale is in the civil action. The mere fact that the Cecil applied locks to those cisterns post-death proves the case. The California courts killed Elisa and devastated her parents a second time with this cavalier decision. I’m assuming the City of Los Angeles Powers That Be didn’t want to create new precedent that could start a torrent of future tourist legal actions, so the lawsuit was unceremoniously thrown out, the issue of risk left to drown, too. City pressure or not, L.A. Superior Court Judge, Howard Halm, should be ashamed of himself.

Now, to the facts… yes, people, facts — not hearsay, not theory, not innuendo, not gossip...

The precise details of the hours leading up to Elisa’s death will never be completely known, but when you separate the conspiracy theory chaff from the fact wheat, the tale shakes out pretty clean. After some time assessing relevant documentation and available witness statements and the now infamous hotel video, here is my take:

  • To all who believe Elisa Lam was killed and stuffed into the cistern at the hands of a Cecil Hotel current employee or tenant: You’re not using your common sense. Those are the first people the LAPD would vet. The risk is far too high. The clock starts ticking on the hotel water going bad, the moment Elisa’s body lands in the tank, surely igniting an internal and external investigation. And no employee nor tenant would dare use that water. They would surely know why it’s spilling out a brackish brown.
  • I believe the cistern lid is the key.

If after their investigation, the LAPD detectives signed off on this death as an accident, that meant the cistern lid was found lying in the OFF or OPEN position. Pure and simple. That fact will not change no matter how many red herring ideas flop around in anyone’s mind. I believe the maintenance worker, Santiago Lopez — in his initial and only witness statement — stated the truth. He found the lid off the water tank when he located Elisa’s body. Original witness statements are always the best versions. Everything said thereafter is warped by fading memory over time. The fact that Lopez cannot be located in Mexico means nothing. I’m sure with the furor surrounding this death, he wanted to give his statement and then have nothing more to do with the case. He most assuredly returned to Mexico to get away from the press and the incessantly annoying web sleuths who won’t let this death die.

  • Regarding the sand-like particulate that was found in Elisa’s clothing: two source possibilities:

1) Elisa may have sat on the roof prior to entering the cistern, as photos indicate the roof surface had a light-coloured coating of some kind;

2) Water tanks, either from the aging of the tank itself or from calcium/lime build-up, will shed white particulate matter.

 My gut says the scenario went thus:


  • Locals — Skid Row vagrants/former tenants — knew about the practice of leaving the hall windows open on the floors of the Cecil Hotel, done as a means of getting airflow into the building that had no air conditioning. Easy access to the fire escape ladders was had from those open windows. Elisa followed or was invited by those locals — to climb the ladder to reach the roof without tripping any alarms — to cool off up there, hang out, party and/or just take in the view.

  • By the looks of the elevator CCTV, Elisa was in, at minimum, a playful state, at maximum, a manic state, either of which would have her open to the idea of doing something exciting/adventurous. The time stamp shows 8:30 a.m., and if its accuracy is to be believed — and I have no reason to doubt it —Elisa, on her last day there, decided to head to the roof for the reasons I listed above. In the video, you can clearly see she is not in a hurry to go anywhere. At 8:30, she’s hours away from check-out time and more hours still from heading to her next stop, Santa Cruz. After all, she’s on vacation, right? Why rush anywhere?
  • When she reached the roof, she may have sat on the surface for a time — explaining the “sand like particulate” found on her clothed during autopsy — then the sound of footsteps startled her and the others with her. The locals would know to immediately head for the exterior fire escape ladders in order avoid capture. Elisa, depending on her location on the roof, either didn’t have time to make it to a fire escape or she got turned around and couldn’t find one. So, her next and only option would have been to hide amid the water cisterns. She climbs the pedestal, sees the ladder and climbs the rungs to the top of one of the four tanks, certain no one investigating will think to look for someone way up there.

  • The locals, who had accompanied Elisa, reached street level and melted back into the crowds on South Main and Skid Row, never giving a thought to “ratting out” Elisa and her whereabouts to the hotel staff or security. Those persons, whoever they were, left Elisa alone to her own devices. In that area of town, survival of the fittest and mind your own business would be a local’s motto, as it is in any cold, concrete jungle.
    Courtesy NBC News
  • Elisa ended up being right. Whoever came up to the roof to investigate, never saw her on top of those tanks. Security probably did a cursory inspection, found nothing out of order, and promptly left the roof. For a time, Elisa probably giggled. She was having fun.
  • We will never know if Elisa a) found a cistern lid already open; or b) she chose to open one of the unlocked lids herself. Being in a playful or manic mood would have had her curiosity peeked either way. Being alone and out of danger of discovery, Elisa took her time investigating one of the tanks, and when she peered in she saw clear, cool water, and was surprised and delighted. I know L.A. heat, even in January. I checked. That morning, it was between 73-75 degrees Fahrenheit. Being city centre, with ambient heat radiating off buildings, meteorologists claim you can add another 15 degrees, so when Elisa was on that roof, it could have been 90 degrees. Elisa was hot. She thought she could jump in and go for a swim, never thinking that to climb back out could end up being far more difficult.
  • Possibly when she first looked into the tank, the water level was high — similar to how Santiago Lopez found it some 12 inches from the top — and at that height a person could probably jump in and climb out easily. But after she jumped in, the hotel patrons began using more water — this is check-out time for departing guests — and the level in the tank lowered faster than she could grab onto the lip to climb back out. She found herself floating several feet from the top with no hand holds to facilitate escape.
  • Evidenced by the 1 inch right knee scar and a ¼ inch abrasion on the left (found during autopsy), some attempt at jumping or climbing out was made. Exhausted, seeing her efforts were futile, Elisa starts to call out, yelling for anyone to help. The locals who led her up there are long gone. The security and/or maintenance staff who had her initially running for cover are long gone, too. Elisa is alone on that roof, treading water in a tank she can no longer exit, the searing L.A. sun hitting her bobbing head, blinding her sight. If security only checked the roof once per shift or once per day, Elisa will remain alone there until she dies, for someone her build wouldn’t be able to tread water for long.
  • Minutes in, and Elisa’s fun-loving and/or manic state has stopped cold. She is stone-cold sober with fear. She treads water, cries out and prays the level will again rise so she can reach the lip of the opening to break free. But the morning demand for water increases, so the water level will not rise. With four tanks in use, one tank’s volume may stay low for hours or days.
  • Regarding the removal of her clothes: again, two scenarios:

1) Treading water fully clothed takes a great amount of energy. I know this from personal experience. Years ago, I had to pass a life guard test that had me dressed in a jean jacket and jeans, swimming out into the middle of the lake to save a pretend drowning victim, doing AR all the way as I pulled the limp body back to shore. Unless you’re a pro swimmer, clothing will take you down fast. Elisa senses this and sheds her clothes to weigh less/expend less energy to remain longer above water;


2) The water in those cisterns would be cold, as it would only be heated once it went through the hotel’s interior boiler system. Despite the warm L.A. air, hypothermia starts to set in. Being a small build, it would take very little time for Elisa’s limbs to start feeling the cold and go numb. This would easily hinder movement. As well, in a hypothermic state, a person will ironically feel hot and they will remove their clothing to cool down.

In either scenario, Elisa ends up naked. There was never any sexual assault.

  • As time wears on, the hypothermia affects Elisa’s heart, or she just tires from treading water, or her limbs malfunction being numb, and she eventually passes out and/or sinks to the bottom of the tank. In either scenario, a “dry drowning” can occur whereby water fills your airway and you asphyxiate before your lungs have a chance to fill with water. It’s a drowning, nonetheless, and you still die. How do I know this? My late husband died the exact same way in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Portugal. The only saving grace: as the Portuguese coroner told me, people who asphyxiate die fairly fast.

In the subsequent days, security may have climbed onto the roof, but hearing and seeing no one, there was no cause for concern. Maintenance may have climbed up there, too, to monitor the tank pressures, but if the gauges registered correctly, no further investigation of the tanks would be warranted. So, Elisa’s body remained in that tank undisturbed for 19 days and nights. As decomposition began, gases would increase, and eventually her body would float to the surface of the water. And when the water level raised to its full position, Elisa’s body would float some 12 inches from the top of the tank, as seen by Santiago close to three weeks later.

I only pray Elisa fell unconscious or succumbed fast — within minutes, an hour tops — as any other scenario where she was alive in that tank for God knows how long… my heart cannot accept. The fact that her final moments on this earth had her alone and frightened in that cold and heartless tank is just too much to bear. In my mind’s eye, I will see her parent’s expressions until I die.

My Conclusion: locals may have shown Elisa the way to the rooftop of the Cecil Hotel, but, sadly, it was her decision to hide amid those tanks and jump into the water. No other concrete evidence affords any other scenario.

  • Any touch DNA deposited on the cistern ladder or lid from her climbing most likely disintegrated in the sun/wind/rain in the 19 days it took Mr. Lopez to find her body.
  • The sniffer dogs — they were probably not cadaver dogs, as at that point in the investigation, Elisa was only considered a missing person — wouldn’t have locked onto any decomposition scent. And earlier into the death, the body may not have floated to the surface, allowing the tank water itself to mask any scent.
  • This was an accidental dry drowning, Elisa dying from asphyxiation.
  • There was no foul play. Elisa was not sexually assaulted.
  • The body damage seen in the autopsy resulted strictly from decomposition.

And those locals who wanted to show Elisa a good time probably never even knew her horrendous end. And there’s every chance that they are dead now, too, from alcohol poisoning or a drug overdose.

Skid Row swallows its own.


In the Elisa Lam death, sadly, there is nothing left to investigate nor to solve.

The cops know it.

The family knows it.

There is no sinister cabal, no evil doer exacting evil ends, despite the hotel’s dark history.

There will be no more evidence come to light, no matter the endless forum rants.


Acceptance is the final stage in grief.

Now, we wait for the web sleuths to reach it.

And when they do, the internet waves will ebb… for a time…

But lying in wait in those abated waves, armchair detectives will strike again to gnaw on the remnants of the next fated end.


Elisa Lam’s death will remain a deeply tragic affair in a pitiful part of L.A., in a city that has seen so many tragic ends to so many hopeful souls.

The angels in that city often sleep, their ears not hearing your wretched cries.

And when awake, they herald to visitors a warning, if even you refuse to listen,


Courtesy Derrick Chen

Tread careful,

Mind as you go,

On land as in our dark water,

As fate can swallow you whole.