Netflix’s oddly-titled Crime Scene: Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel premiered last week and we now have some resolution to the tragic story of Elisa Lam. Or do we? Conspiracy theories emerged because of the bizarre elevator video (below) at the center of this case, the even stranger outcome, and the inconsistent answers provided by the LAPD, an agency fraught with historical corruption and cover-ups. Also, we should question the merits of all media, especially documentaries that are purported to present facts. In many cases, facts are just conjecture in a fancy package. This is Elisa’s story and her name isn’t even in the title. The documentary feels very unbalanced tipping towards sensationalism at best, or at worst, perhaps having ulterior motives. Here are my observations and thoughts:
The series is book-ended with Elisa’s carefully curated words, directly as she wrote them on her blog, intoned with a glib optimism, and yet her story is the most muted in this series. I didn’t get a sense of what Elisa’s world was like. We get glimpses of her thoughts, all written before her fateful trip to California, but we never hear one word from anyone who personally knew her – not her family, friends, classmates, doctor, or anyone else directly connected to her. Did they not want to be involved? Or did producers not want to include those voices? The director of the documentary admits that the family "neither approved or disapproved of telling [her] story" and that it gave him "pause." Her family appears only in archival footage of an LAPD briefing and didn’t speak. Elisa's actual life is not put into any meaningful context, and instead we get a generalized persona of who she might have been.
The predominant anecdotal evidence is from the case files (cites as being available to the public under the freedom of information but never actually made unavailable), testimonies from the two beady-eyed chief investigating officers, the flippant former hotel manager who wants to tell her story, a psychologist brought onto review the infamous elevator footage, and several "web sleuths" and journalists who followed the case.
The documentary shames the web sleuths for not having all the information (because the LAPD didn’t released it) and blames them for the fixation on the bizarre elevator video (nothing to see here folks). It also judges them for stirring up wild conspiracy theories and portraying it as entertainment (the irony here is unbearable) that led to some people being falsely accused, like the bullied Satanic metal musician who was actually in Mexico when Elisa checked into the Cecil.
The documentary does not honor Elisa, presenting only one facet and extrapolating an entire persona: a reckless, psychotic girl incapable of handling the overwhelming reality of L.A.’s seedy Skid Row district. Her blog presents a very honest struggle with mental health suggesting a keen self-awareness about her condition. Knowing this, she still decides on a solo trip. Did she do this with no planning or research? Was her entire trip with multiple stops an impulsive whim? The detectives surely give Elisa no credit for being a thoughtful, resourceful, and tech connected young woman, and we know that older white men know better.
Early on in the series, the detectives lay out a wide berth of possible suspects who might have caused her harm: the questionable street people, the easy access to drugs, strangers she might have met online, bookstore employees, or even the dangerous hotel guests. Others blame the mysterious “portal to hell” hotel with a dubious dark history of death, including it infamous resident, Richard "The Night Stalker" Ramirez. All this misdirection seems to single out back-up plans to cause a shadow of a doubt, in case their lead theory didn't pan out.
The leading theory presented is that Elisa Lam had a biopolar disorder, underdosed her medication (according to a toxicology report), had a delusion-fueled episode which led to the bizarre behavior caught on camera in the elevator video. She later fled in panic out a window, up a fire escape, and decided to hide in the furthest-most water tank on the roof of the hotel, took off her clothes, and drowned. This theory rests on whether the water tank’s hatch was closed or open when the body was found, since she couldn’t have closed it once inside.
Elisa Lam’s family sued the hotel (and lost) and in this trial Santiago Lopez, a former maintenance worker, reveals “new information” never previously released. An off-screen producer asks Mr. Lopez a leading question about the hatch and he says, yes, it was open when he found the body, but his weary eyes quickly look down, away and then over off screen. This moment seemed so performative and disingenuous to me, almost as if he agreed to say this version of the truth. Why wait until the trial to reveal this? Was he being harassed by the LAPD (who has a long history of racism)? The case for Elisa’s death not being foul play rests on that hatch being open. The detective then says the media led with the story of the latch being closed, but it was actually an officer for the LAPD who reported this, and the voiceover confirms a communication breakdown. This again seems like an inconclusive, confused answer with no accountability.
Amy Price, the former manager, comes across as brawny and empathy-free guard watching "over her kingdom" (her words) which was perhaps what's needed to run a hotel like The Cecil. She said the hotel closed in 2017, adding, “We are not responsible for her death” and spoke several soundbites to declare the hotel’s innocence. This also seemed very performative and did her unblinking, fixated eyes hold other truths? Perhaps she was also trying to absolve some of her carelessness for not calling for help when Elisa displayed odd behavior in the lobby ("the police never answer"). She later added that the hotel was bought and was being converted into a luxury hotel. So what was in it for her and who stands to benefit from clearing up this strange case?
The most curious indirect admission by the two investigators is that the notorious 4-minute elevator video was edited by the LAPD prior to being released to the public. The edit is curious since 53 seconds of footage is removed after Elisa leaves the frame halfway through, and the rest is two minutes of footage of an empty elevator. The time stamp was blurred to hide this edit. Why have that much extra footage in the video to begin with, and why edit a chunk in the middle out? The hotel manager plainly says she turned over unedited footage. Does this suggest that she knows what on the missing portion of the footage?
Most startling moment was the "synchronicities" introduced in the third episode that are mind-boggling coincidences: the case follows a similar plot to the 2005 movie, Dark Water; there was a tuberculosis outbreak after Elisa Lam arrived at The Cecil; the college she attended in Canada has a well-known tuberculosis research center; the test given to detect tuberculosis is called the Lam-Elisa test; one of the final places she visited before her death was called The Last Bookstore whose website registrar information includes the postal code V5G4S2 that when entered in Google Maps points to the cemetery where Elisa Lam is buried.
This was such a tragic story, and I feel sadness for the loss of Elisa Lam and that her family will once again be dragged through more media coverage. While this documentary presents "The Hard Truth" (the title of episode 4) with a pat answer, a little bow tying up all the loose ends, I wonder if this is the complete story. I also question the validity of truthfulness from any part of the LAPD since it's brutality and racism remain consistent as of December 2020 when it descended on a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest. The documentary is well shot and structured, and will satisfy most viewers. But it will also inevitably draw others to the infamous Cecil Hotel once it reopens its doors, luring more unsuspecting victims into its dark halls.
The LAPD's original 4-minute elevator video of Elisa Lam: