Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel (Netflix)

This limited series focuses on the mysterious disappearance and death of Elisa Lam while staying at the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.  This story could have served as a fascinating single episode of Unsolved Mysteries.  Unfortunately, what we get is four overly padded episodes that eventually confirm what I suspected all along.  Worse still, significant time was devoted to talking head commentary that is irrelevant to the case, especially the commentary made by several self-described “YouTubers”, “web sleuths” and “journalists”.  The commentary they made online at the time was entirely baseless speculation on what happened to Ms. Lam.  The decision to include them along with the interviews of the actual detectives and forensic specialists involved in the case was a decision that turned what could have been a serious examination into the case into laugh-inducing material.  Not recommended.

As Unsolved Mysteries has proven time and again, people die in ways that are completely baffling and mysterious.  The deceased sometimes leave behind no clues that help us understand why they died, and their deaths remain an open question as to whether they were either killed or if they took their own lives.  Unsolved Mysteries does a decent job of presenting those stories in an hour or less, providing a serious look into each case.  Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel devotes four hours to the topic of Elisa Lam’s death.  The series feels extremely padded, with many extraneous reenactments, voiceovers and interviews that ultimately prove to be indulgent and irrelevant to the case at hand.

Elisa Lam was a twenty-one year old woman living in Vancouver with her family.  She suffered from bi-polar disorder and took four medications to control her symptoms.  Even when medicated, she suffered from mood swings that would result in severe depression, to the point where she was unable to get out of bed.  She recounted her daily life on Tinder, revealing her innermost feelings, opinions and desires.  One day, she decided to visit the major cities in California, travelling alone.  In her online posts, she stated that she hoped going to California would help her find her purpose in life.

After visiting San Diego, she heads to Los Angeles.  She books a four-night stay at the Cecil Hotel, a seven-hundred room hotel located in Skid Row that caters to young travelers looking for a cheap place to stay while visiting the city.  It also provides affordable short-term housing to a variety of people on the bottom of the social spectrum.  In its history the hotel was often home for people who had just been released from prison, prostitutes, drug abusers and criminals.  Over its history, two known serial killers lived there, including Richard Rodriguez, the Night Stalker.  (Richard Rodriguez has his own series on Netflix, and I recommend watching that over this one.)

Elisa Lam’s time in Los Angeles is relatively uneventful.  All that we learn from the series is that she attended the live taping of a show and shopped at The Last Bookstore.  She initially shared a room with two other ladies on the fifth floor, but they complained about her erratic behavior to hotel management.  To remedy the situation, the hotel moved her to a private room on the fourteenth floor for the last night of her stay.  During that night, she was caught on a hotel surveillance video in an elevator.  The video shows her acting erratically, making strange hand  gestures and trying to avoid detection.  After several minutes, she walks out of the elevator and never returns.  The following morning, when Lam failed to checkout, the hotel staff packaged up her belongings and cleaned her room.  Lam’s family reported her as missing when they didn’t hear from her that day.

Eighteen detectives initially worked on Lam’s missing person case.  A scent-tracking dog picked up her scent on the fifth floor and tracked it down a hallway, towards an access way to the fire escape.  The roof was searched, but no trace of Elisa Lam is found.  A week into the investigation, most of the detectives were pulled from Lam’s case to the Christopher Dorner case.  Thirteen days after Lam’s disappearance, detectives decided to release the video of Lam in and around the hotel elevator to the media.  The video goes viral and results in countless YouTubers speculating on what the video means.  (The video is like a Millennial Zapruder film, showing much but explaining little.)  After nineteen days, Lam’s body was found in one of the water tanks on the roof of the fourteen-story hotel. She was found floating face-up, completely nude.  Her clothes were found at the bottom of the tank.  The initial autopsy states the cause of Lam’s death as “inconclusive”.  Four months elapse before the official autopsy report is released, and that vacuum fuels more needless and conspiracy-riddled speculation by the amateur detectives on YouTube.

The autopsy finds no signs of trauma on Lam’s body, as well as no evidence of rape.  A subsequent toxicology screen finds no recreational drugs in her system.  What does come up is that the level of prescribed medications found in her system was significantly lower than what it should have been if she were taking them as directed.  The coroner’s office concludes that based on the result of the toxicology report, as well as Lam’s behavior caught on video tape, died from an accidental drowning due to bipolar disorder.  The theory behind this conclusion is that Lam suffered a manic episode as a result of going off of her medications, resulting in the bizarre behavior reported by her roommates, at the television studio and in the elevator.  After leaving the elevator, Lam climbed onto the roof via the hotel fire escape.  (The hotel fire escape would have been accessed by Lam opening a window that faced the fire escape, and would not have triggered any hotel alarms.)  Lam then climbed a ladder to get to the roof, then climbed another ladder on a utility building to access the water tanks.  From there, she opened one of the tanks and jumped in.  Unknown is whether she removed her clothing before she entered the tank, or after.

As someone who watches most true crime series released on Netflix, I expected a series like this to spend time with the detectives who investigated her disappearance.  Hearing from various talking heads discussing her psychology and behavior is par for the course.  We sometimes also hear from pathologists discussing the autopsy itself.  Unfortunately, just like the case itself, Crime Series goes askew through the inclusion of several YouTubers, websleuths and journalists who latched onto Lam’s case.  While I know that posting videos of yourself discussing and theorizing about something you know nothing about, or have no real-world expertise in, is typical for YouTubers and the internet in general, hearing one pea-brained conspiracy after another grew wearing.  Even worse, the  conspiracy theories put forth by the YouTubers and web sleuths are disproven by the experts rather easily.  For example, several speculate:

  • That the door to the elevator was being held open by someone outside the elevator, someone that Lam was trying to avoid.  Turns out that among the several buttons she had pressed, she also pressed the “door open” button. That caused the door to remain open for two minutes.
  • That someone killed Lam and disposed of her body in the water tank.  Since an alarm would have gone off at the front desk when the fire exit door would have been opened, the perpetrator would have had to carry Lam’s body over her shoulder while climbing two ladders.  Doing this without injuring Lam’s body in any way is not possible.
  • That Lam couldn’t have gone into the water tank of her own volition, because the lid for the water tank was closed when she was found.  Turns out that one of the police officials either misspoke or misunderstood information as it was coming in.  At a subsequent wrongful death trial, the hotel maintenance man who found Lam’s body said that the lid was open when he found her.
  • That Lam being found nude was a sign that she was sexually assaulted.  She could have removed her clothing as a result of hypothermia, or to help remain afloat.
  • That Lam was killed by a death metal musician named Morbid.  Turns out that Morbid had stayed at the Hotel Cecil a year before Lam ever checked in, and had receipts to prove it.  He was in Mexico working on an album at the time of her death.
  • That Lam was killed in a reenactment of the movie Dark Water.  While there are a few similarities to plot elements in the movie and Lam’s death, they are just coincidences.
  • That Lam was infected with Tuberculosis by the Chinese government and sent to the US to start an outbreak.  Evidence of this was that there was an outbreak among the homeless people on Skid Row.  And that the University of British Columbia, where Lam had studied, has a Center for Tuberculosis.  And that there is a Tuberculosis test called Lam-Elisa.  For the internet, THERE ARE NO COINCIDENCES.
  • In all fairness, the perceived doctoring of the video footage is never really explained.  Reasons are given for why the video timestamp was blurred, or why the footage was slowed down, or why there was a cut before the elevator door closes the first time, but they aren’t conclusive.

Throughout the series, I genuinely felt embarrassed for the detectives and the hotel staff who agreed to be interviewed.  That the producers (including Ron Howard and Brian Grazer) and director Joe Berlinger (Brother’s Keeper, Paradise Lost) had them defend themselves against the internet pea-brains included in this exercise is unconscionable.  The four that are included here come off as self-absorbed and under the delusion of their own wisdom.  When common sense fails, some purport that the hotel is haunted, and that Lam was killed by a ghost.  They also state that the hotel staff and or the LAPD must have had something to do with Lam’s disappearance and murder, with no evidence to back their claims up.  Yes, I know that making unfounded accusations on YouTube is one of the reasons why YouTube thrives, but I never knew how bad it really was until I saw this series. Giving the internet speculators equal time with detectives and hotel staff in the spirit of fairness only lends credence to crackpot theories and those who espouse them.

After watching YouTuber after YouTuber profess with absolute certainty their personal opinions of Lam’s death, I realized that these YouTubers are essentially vulture capitalists.  They profess to care about Lam and say they want to see her purported killer brought to justice, but that isn’t entirely true.  To address their completely unfounded opinion with one of my own, all these YouTubers really care about is getting people to watch their videos.  The series fails to mention that YouTubers earn a living through advertising.  The more people watch their videos, the more money they earn.  They may say that they want to know what happened to Lam because they care about her, but all they really do is offer up hair-brained theories and conjecture wrapped in their feelings of outrage and entitlement.

One of “web sleuths” interviewed in Crime Series is particularly creepy.  (I won’t name him here, because any notoriety he gets from his participation in the series is completely unearned.)  He professes how much he cares about Lam, but really she is just a meal ticket to notoriety for him.  As proof of this, we are first shown a video where he and a friend film themselves walking around the Cecil Hotel like dweeby ghouls.  Later, the same guy asked a friend to visit Lam’s gravesite in Vancouver, and had him put his hand on Lam’s grave stone.  That the people behind this series would give airtime to someone who is so obviously a parasite, who’s only sustenance is feasting on Lam’s tragedy for his own personal edification, shows their complete disregard for Lam and her family.

Dr. Judy Ho is also given airtime in Crime Series.  She’s a Clinical/Forensic Neuropsychologist and provides insight into Lam’s psychological state, as someone suffering from Bipolar Disorder.  Initially I thought Dr. Judy (as she is known) had direct involvement in Lam’s case, but that wasn’t the case.  She often appears on television shows to give her opinions on a given person’s psychology, and has a longstanding professional relationship with  Dr. Drew Pinsky, a fellow media doctor.  Whenever she appears in this series, her glamor outshines everyone else who appears in this series by far.  She’s had an interesting career, and could probably be the subject of her own documentary some day.

In the end, I really feel sorry for death metal artist Morbid.  While members of the LAPD are used to dealing with people directing accusations and threats at them, he definitely was not prepared for what happened to him.  He intentionally (or unintentionally) released a music video a few days after her death that about the death and murder of a young woman.  A previously released video is from his stay at the Cecil Hotel.  The internet crowd obsessed with Lam’s death hound him relentlessly and got all of his social media accounts suspended.  Morbid, who’s real name is Pablo Vergara, attempted suicide and was placed into a psychiatric hospital.  He managed to pull himself together, but is unable to make music anymore.  He says that when the LA coroner’s office released their official report on Lam’s death, which stated explicitly that it was accidental, he never received an apology from any of the YouTubers that went after him and ruined his life

I wish one of those video experts on the internet would create a one-hour distilled version of this series.  Every episode has only about fifteen minutes of material pertinent to Lam’s case.  I’d actually like to see this story edited down to its core.  If a video like that ever comes about, I’m sure it would be a good one, and put Crime Series to shame.

And if you think my review was long, check out this reddit thread.

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