The Vanishing at The Cecil Hotel: Gruesome history of hotel where mysterious death of Elisa Lam took place

Netflix's new true-crime series focuses on the mysterious death of Canadian student Elisa Lam, 21, who was found dead in 2013 in one of the most haunted hotels in America. But she wasn't the only one...

Alice Hutton
Thursday 11 February 2021 14:17
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel trailer

A notorious hotel in Los Angeles that is known for a host of suicides, mysterious deaths and grisly murders is the subject of a new, true-crime Netflix series. 

The first time someone took their own life in The Cecil Hotel, in downtown LA, California, was on January 22, 1927, when guest Percy Ormond Cook, 52, shot himself in the head after failing to reconcile with his wife and child. 

By the 1960s, so many untimely demises had taken place there it was reportedly nicknamed ‘The Suicide’ by local residents, who claimed it had “insanity within its walls”. 

But it’s the tragic, unexplained death of Canadian college student Elisa Lam eight years ago that has inspired the new four-episode docu-series, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at The Cecil Hotel, out on February 10.

Directed by Joe Berlinger, who released "Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes" in 2019, it centres on events that took place in January and February 2013, when the 21-year-old Lam was staying at the re-branded ‘Stay on Main’ budget hotel.

After being captured on CCTV behaving erratically in an elevator, the Vancouver native went missing, and was found 19 days later naked inside the building’s rooftop water tank, after guests allegedly reported that the water “tasted odd”.  The CCTV footage of Lam later went viral.

Berlinger told The Independent this week that her murder was "one of the first that really captured the world of amateur investigators worldwide".

He added: “Even though the case is closed, some still believe the wrong conclusions have been reached, and there’s a lot of allegations and conspiracies.”

Amy Price, the Cecil's general manager from 2007-17, during the time Lam went missing, told USA Today that “there were thousands of 911 calls” and about 80 deaths during her decade working there. 

On her first day, Price was given a tour by a maintenance manager.

"Along the way, he would just point and say, ‘Someone died here, someone died there,’" she said.

"Suicides. Overdoses. Murders. At one point I think I just asked him: ‘Is there a room here that maybe somebody hasn’t died in?’"

With a gruesome history like The Cecil’s many have wondered over the years why it’s still open and why anyone would choose to stay there. 

But as always, there’s a price for everything, and the hotel’s selling point has always been its 700 cheap rooms, still available at $36 a night. 

It was built in the 1920s, right around the corner from the aptly named Skid Row, that, during the Great Depression, became a magnet for the city’s homeless, sex workers, drug addicts and the generally down-and-out.  

One of the most famous, unsolved murders in the US, later known as “the Black Dhalia”, reportedly began in its bar in 1947.

Elizabeth Short, 22, a wannabe Hollywood Star with no credits to her name, was seen drinking there in the days before she was found in the Leimart Park neighbourhood, chopped in half, with a ‘Glasgow smile’; a cut that runs from the corners of your mouth up to your ears.

It was where serial killer Richard Ramirez, more commonly called ‘The Night Stalker’, was staying in a $14 a night room when he was arrested in August 1985 for the sexual assaults and murders of dozens of people.

Ramirez reportedly threw his bloody clothing in a rubbish bin behind the hotel and walking back inside naked.  It was an act considered so low down on the scale of ‘colourful’ guests that it famously didn’t immediately raise the suspicion of staff. 

A second serial killer, Jack Unterweger, was also a frequent visitor to The Cecil in the 1990s when he was suspected of killing nearly a dozen of women, mostly sex-workers, in both the US and his home country Austria, by strangling them with their own bras. 

He was arrested in Miami after fleeing the hotel and was extradited to Austria where he killed himself in prison in 1994 after being found guilty of nine murders, including three in Los Angeles. 

Over the years the hotel routinely featured on true crime podcasts and ‘Most Haunted Hotels’ lists.

In 2015, American Horror Story, written by Ryan Murphy, dedicated its entire fifth season to the hotel. In the series, Lady Gaga, Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett star in 'Hotel'; a show about blood thirsty vampires and demonic ghosts who live in the ‘Cortez’ hotel that is filled with suicides, overdoses and murders. 

But the most tragic of all deaths might be that of an unnamed baby boy. 

He was born in 1944, to the surprise of his teenage mother, Dorothy Jean Purcell, 19, when she was staying at the hotel with her 38-year-old partner. 

Ms Purcell, who reportedly didn’t know she was pregnant, claimed she believed him already dead, and threw him out the window. 

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