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Netflix's Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel examines the 2013 death of Elisa Lam, whose body was found in a water tower atop the Los Angeles property

Updated February 16, 2021 07:18 PM
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cecil hotel
the Cecil Hotel
| Credit: Nick Ut/AP/Shutterstock

Netflix's Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel delves into one mysterious death, but the historic Los Angeles property had an eerie reputation long before Elisa Lam checked in.

The twenty-one-year-old Canadian college student disappeared while staying at the hotel in 2013. Her body was later found at the bottom of a water tank on the roof. The circumstances surrounding her death mystified law enforcement and online sleuths, who studied the evidence, including a bizarre bit of security footage of Lam stepping in and out of a hotel elevator that marked the last time she was seen alive. Her death was later ruled an accidental drowning, but that has done little to quell the endless speculation about foul play or even paranormal activity.

According to one of the experts featured in a clip from the show (below), "Throughout the years the Cecil has become this exalted space of crime, of violence, of spookiness."

Serial Killers in Residence

Two serial killers famously lived at the Cecil, a 700-room hotel that opened in the 1920s and is located in Downtown L.A.'s Skid Row. For much of its history, it functioned as single-room rentals with shared bathrooms, rather than a typical hotel.

Richard Ramirez, known as the "Nightstalker," resided in a $14-per-night room in 1985, according to CNN. In the early 1980s, he killed 13 women and, the outlet notes, was able to remain under the radar thanks to the building's seedy reputation and largely transient occupants. A second expert who appears in the episode notes Ramirez would "come back covered in blood" without raising eyebrows.

Another serial killer, Jack Unterweger, was reportedly a resident at the Cecil in 1991 and killed three Los Angeles sex workers during his time there. The Austrian journalist had previously been convicted of murder but was released early in 1990 after he was thought to have been rehabilitated. He went on to be convicted of nine more murders.

A Link to Black Dahlia

The Cecil Hotel also has ties to one of the most famous unsolved crimes in history: the Black Dahlia murder. While actress Elizabeth Short, who became known as the Black Dahlia after her death, was last seen at the nearby Biltmore Hotel before her gruesome death, Crime Scene indicates she allegedly visited the bar at the Cecil Hotel shortly before she was killed.

One online theory about Lam's 2013 death also involved a suspect who had previously visited the Cecil and posted a video of himself with an image of Short in the background.

Numerous Guest Deaths

At least four tenants of the hotel have also died by suicide at the site since 1927. In 1962, a woman jumped from a ninth-floor window and landed on a pedestrian below killing them both. Several others died after ingesting poison. In the show, the hotel's former manager, Amy Price, claimed she had seen 80 deaths in the 10 years she worked there, from 2007 to 2017.

Turns on TV

The Cecil served as inspiration for American Horror Story: Hotel, the fifth season of the Ryan Murphy-created show, which aired in 2015 and 2016. The show was not filmed on-site, but there were many parallels to Murphy's fictional Hotel Cortez. He even revealed on a panel that he decided on the theme of the season after seeing a real bit of surveillance video. "A girl got in an elevator in a downtown hotel. She was never seen again," he said seemingly referring to the footage of Elisa Lam.

It also received a visit from Travel Channel's Zak Bagans and his team of paranormal investigators, who created the two-hour special Ghost Adventures: Cecil Hotel, which debuted on January 4 and is available to stream on Discovery+.

New Tenants Wanted

The Cecil Hotel is not currently welcoming guests, but there are plans for it to reopen. The property was purchased by hotelier Richard Born for $30 million in 2014, according to Curbed. The plan was to turn it into "reasonably priced residences catering to young professionals," according to the outlet. But it soon changed hands again. It was purchased by a development group in 2016 with hopes to turn it into the Historic Core hotel, a mix of hotel rooms and rental units.

In 2017, it closed for renovations, with plans to add a gym and rooftop pool among other luxury amenities. It has yet to reopen.

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is streaming now on Netflix.