‘Crime Scene: the Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel’: The Cecil Hotel Had a Dark History Before Elisa Lam’s Death

Netflix OriginalCrime Scene: The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel, if you don’t know the story already, is the stuff of nightmares. True crime fans were already familiar with Elisa Lam and the Cecil Hotel crime scene photos that have made the rounds on the internet since Lam’s bizarre 2013 disappearance and death. What some might now know, is that The Cecil Hotel’s dark history stretches back decades. Lam isn’t the only person who has met an untimely end at the Los Angeles landmark.  

Elisa Lam’s mysterious death haunts true crime fans

Lam checked into the Cecil Hotel, then known as Stay on Main, on January 26, 2013. Lam, traveling alone from Vancouver, had planned to tour the West Coast. LA was one of her stops. She vanished on January 31, 2013. Lam, 21, had been in contact with her parents each day during her travels. When she failed to check in with them on Feb. 1, they alerted authorities. Shortly after that, they flew in from Canada to help with the search.

A photo of the outside of The Cecil Hotel
The Cecil Hotel | Netflix © 2021

Lam’s body was discovered in a rooftop water tank on Feb. 19. The death was ruled an accidental drowning. Internet sleuths quickly picked up the case, questioning how Lam could have ended up in the rooftop water tank, an area of the building that only employees were supposed to have access, too. They also questioned a baffling surveillance video that showed Lam pushing every button in the elevator and making unusual movements. Some armchair detectives argued that the tape had been tampered with.

The Cecil Hotel saw a string of murders and suicide starting around the time it opened in the 1920s

While Lam’s mysterious disappearance and death is the most well-known case at the establishment now, it was far from the first. The Cecil Hotel opened its doors in 1924. From the first years of operation, it was shrouded in darkness. The first death came in 1927 when a man shot himself inside a private room in the hotel. In 1931, a second man was found dead in his room after ingesting poison. The Cecil Hotel would see four more suicides in the 1930s.

an arial view of the Cecil Hotel
The Cecil Hotel | Netflix © 2021

In the 1940s things got worse. In 1944, a 19-year-old woman killed her child after giving birth in the room she shared with a much older man. Two more suicides were recorded that decade. In the 1960s, a retiree was found beaten, raped, and stabbed inside the hotel. A former manager told USA Today that she knew about 80 deaths and thousands of 911 calls and injuries recorded in a decade of working at the location.

The Cecil Hotel housed two serial killers before Lam’s death

Not only did many people die at the Cecil Hotel, but the famed property also housed two different serial killers. In 1985, Richard Ramirez chose the hotel as one of his haunts. Ramirez, better known as The Night Stalker, lived in the hotel during his summer killing spree. Ramirez was eventually caught and convicted of 13 murders and a litany of other crimes. Ramirez died in prison in 2013.

a photo of a room key from The Cecil Hotel
The Cecil Hotel room key | Netflix © 2021

Who Is Elisa Lam and What Is ‘Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel’ About?

After Ramirez, Jack Unterweger called the hotel home while on a writing assignment. Unterweger was first convicted of murder in 1974 in Austria, but after much lobbying, the parole board released him. Shortly after his 1990 release, his killing spree began. Experts believe Unterweger is responsible for at least seven deaths in Austria before a magazine sent him to the United States to cover a story. During his time at the Cecil Hotel, Unterweger murdered three sex workers before returning to Europe. He was arrested again in 1992. Unterweger died in 1994. His death came on the same night that he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.