Recently I binged the Netflix documentary series Crime Scene The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel, it was an interesting watch, if you’re into real life oddness.
It centres around the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, a 700-room hotel opened in the mid-1920’s just before the Great Depression, along with several grand hotels in the area it enjoyed a period of opulent prosperity and was aimed at the middle class traveller and business men. After World War II the area, also known as Skid Row, fell further into transience as fortunes changed, the stark increase in sex workers, drug dealing and users, along with those unable to afford rents and the increasing protocol to herd the homeless into a manageable area of the ever expanding City, increased criminal activity.
Curiously ever since the Hotel first opened it has been linked to suicides, mysteries and murders. The first documented suicide was January 22, 1927, when Percy Ormond Cook shot himself in the head while inside his hotel room after failing to reconcile with his wife and child. In 1967 “Pigeon Goldie” Osgood long-term resident, a retired telemarketer was found dead in her room, she had been raped, stabbed, beaten and her room ransacked. Her murder remains unsolved. The Press often linked the hotel to numerous serial killers. Frequently residents had died from drug overdoses or long term substance and/or alcohol abuse. There is even a Wikipedia page detailing some of them.
The documentary beds itself around the disappearance in February 2013 of young Canadian student Elisa Lam. She was an avid blogger and frequently documented her travels, fashion, life thoughts online garnering many regular followers. When away from home she called home everyday, after her parents hadn’t heard from her they called the LAPD and news started circulating about a missing person. As the Police struggled to piece together Elisa’s movements they released the elevator CCTV footage, it went viral and set in motion an interesting series of events.
An army of ‘web-sleuths’ scrutinised in meticulous details, frame by frame, the cctv sparking the beginnings of numerous conspiracy theories, many still perpetuate. Things like, why’s the time stamp jumping, the door isn’t closing, whose that shadow. Suddenly people across the globe were gathering in FaceBook groups to discuss minute anomalies, some visiting the hotel to re-enact and trace where she had been. What I found very telling as the documentary continued was how this congregation of unqualified amateurs ardently believed they could succeed where the professionals could not and that they believed every morsel of conjecture and hypothesis from a straightforward mugging gone wrong to the CIA using vanishing vaporise lasers. But there was more to come.
SPOILER ALERT :: if you don’t want to know the outcome I’d suggest ceasing here …. thank you for reading ….
….. Okay dear reader, I hope you’re not eating or drinking while you read on.
About two to three weeks after Elisa’s vanishing a few hotel guests and residents started to complain that the water had an odd odour and taste and the water then started to change colour to a sludgy brown. A maintenance worker was sent to inspect the four roof top water tanks. Sadly one of them contained the floating bloating remains of a young girl, later identified as the missing traveller.
Now the merry band of web sleuths really had something to get overly involved with. From behind their screens and keyboards they pieced together bits of facts with leaps of notions, ignored some elements and fantasised others, to quite catastrophic levels.
Attention turned to how did Elisa get onto the roof. The access door was locked and alarmed, this meant that the hotel management had to be involved, a member of night staff had to have killed her. The design of the building meant that there was a metal fire escape on the outside, a series of stairs and platforms covering all fifteen floors, including the roof, accessed from a hallway window that was not alarmed, locked or monitored in anyway. Debris on the roof showed that it was frequently used by people to smoke, drink, take drugs, have parties etc.
The nature of her discovery caused a media frenzy as a police chief was leaving the hotel trying to get through the jostling crowd of reporters he was asked a question which he hastily replied “When Officers approached the water tank the hatch was closed”. The web brigade pounced on this to mean that she must have been dumped because no-one could close the hatch from the inside, so it must be murder. The officer was correct in his statement, because when the maintenance worker noticed the hatch was open and that’s when he discovered the grizzly contents and had closed the hatch from habit as he called for help.
Searches across the internet brought up ‘evidence’ of a Mexican death metal singer called Morbid, due to his chilling lyrics, which included a reference to a girl drowning and his dark videos addressing death (one was filmed at The Cecil), along with having stayed there, meant he must have lured her to the rooftop and killed her. He was hounded, trolled, and harassed over a period of months, received death threats and villanised as a murderer by the Court of Online Public Opinion. It caused him to suffer a breakdown and such depression that he attempted suicide. The ‘evidence’ grasped by the onliners was years old and at the time of Elisa vanishing Morbid was in Mexico but even still today eight years later he still get mail labelling him a murderer.
One aspect of Elisa’s life was, to some degree, suppressed until late on in the investigations and not readily available, she had been diagnosed as bi-polar and had a history of intentionally not taking the prescribed medication, which had caused her to experience strong psychotic episodes, along with hallucinations in the past. Armed with this knowledge, along with the Coroner’s report showing toxicology levels and there being no evidence of any assault or violence on her body, it was concluded that her death was accidental.
At the end, I felt sad that this young life had ended, that so many innocent people had been branded and abused because of tenuous links but mostly I was concerned, almost worried, about the mob mentality and power of online collectiveness. This ferocious hungry entity eagerly hurrying for instant information, affirmation and inconsequential action feels a little bit like Pandora’s box.