Monday, June 10, 2019

What Happened to Elisa Lam? // Part One

Probably many of you have heard of Elisa Lam and what happened to her, although you might not know her by name. On January 26, 2013, the Canadian university student checked into the Cecil Hotel. This date sticks out for me, and for whatever reason makes the case feel more real, because on that day I was attending my friend’s funeral. It’s weird knowing exactly what I was doing when these events took place.

Originally Lam checked into a hostel type room, but was moved by hotel management to her own private quarters after others complained about her strange behavior. Many of you have probably seen the elevator clip, the last known footage of Elisa Lam before her disappearance and eventual death, but in case you haven’t, you can find it here.

She was reported missing by her parents, but wasn’t found until three weeks later, after residents had been complaining that the water pressure was intermittently low, sometimes only a trickle, and that the water was black and foul tasting.

Reports after this point are conflicting. Some say that the employee who went up to the roof to check on the complaints about the water immediately noticed that the hatch on top of one of the tanks was open. In this narrative, he found Elisa Lam right away, floating face up. Other reports claim that the hatch was closed. For me, this opens up a whole new line of questions. If the tank was open as the employee claims, when the police searched the roof with a sniffer dog after she was reported missing, a) why did they fail to notice that this tank was open, and b) why did the police K-9 not pick up on the scent? (I could suggest that, perhaps, her body was not in the tank the entire time, but there is little evidence for this, and little further cause for speculation on that front.) Regardless, whether or not the tank was open, what they found inside was the naked body of Elisa Lam, with her clothes floating beside her. Her cell phone was never recovered.

There are some things that need to be noted about Elisa Lam. She suffered from bipolar disorder, although her last documented relapse took place a year before. (It is also worth noting that, contrary to popular belief, bipolar is a mood disorder. It does not cause hallucinations. Unless she was misdiagnosed, or had another latent disorder, her behavior leading up to her death would not have been a result of her mental illness.) Toxicology shows that she was taking her medication at the time of her death. While there was an insignificant amount of alcohol in her blood, there were no traces of hallucinogens. It has been posited that, while the footage was eerie and the circumstances around her passing were chilling, this was all the unfortunate result of a psychotic break—a tragedy, but not a mystery. However, there is at least one detail that goes against that. Namely, the elevator footage.

When viewing the footage, you can make a couple guesses about what’s happening based on her behavior. From her body language, which is at times frantic and childlike, it seems clear that she is afraid and that she is hiding from someone. At one point, she is seen talking in an animated way, though whether she is speaking to herself, to something only she can see, or to a person standing off screen, remains unknown. It is natural to see the footage as evidence of a psychotic episode, especially paired with the knowledge of her strange behavior leading up to her disappearance. But here’s what I’d like to point out. Multiple times in that footage, she presses buttons for several floors and then steps away from the elevator doors, which then fail to close. Only when she runs away do the doors finally slide shut. So we know the elevator was working, it just wasn’t working for her.

One commonly-noted aspect to the elevator footage, is the fact that there are pieces of the video missing, amounting to roughly a minute. People have suggested that the police might have edited parts out to protect the identities of innocent people who happened to walk by and appear on camera. Another possibility is that there are details that the police have held back, as they frequently do in investigations, in the event that this was a murder.

Now lets move to the roof and the water tank where she was found. In order to get to the roof, she would have had to get past two locked and alarmed doors. No alarms were reported around that time. Another way to get to the roof would have been climbing up from a window, but considering her erratic behavior on the Youtube video, it’s unclear if that would have been possible. Several sources have also referenced fire escapes, which might have gotten her to the roof. Regardless, she navigated her way to the base of one of the cisterns, and somehow managed to climb the ten feet to the top even though there was no ladder on the roof when her body was found. After that she would have had to climb inside and then remove her clothes. Certain sources have also mentioned that, in order to retrieve her body, firefighters had to cut apart the tank. People have guessed that this might indicate the opening at the top of the cistern wasn’t wide enough to fit a person through, raising further questions as to how she got inside in the first place, although that might not necessarily be the case. If she was in the water for a full three weeks, getting her out would not have been an easy feat.

This leads me to another question, a point on which I have been unable to satisfy myself. Discussing the case with Victoria at Starbucks, and later with Abby as well, we raised the question as to why, if Lam had been floating in the water for three weeks, customers were only just starting to complain about water pressure. For that matter, why was her body affecting water pressure at all, at that point?

The more a body decomposes, the more gases the bacteria inside produce, the more it floats. If the water system was gravity fed, her body would have affected the water flow only until it floated to the surface, so it doesn’t make sense that they were receiving customer complaints about water pressure three weeks in. At that point she would no longer have been blocking a gravity fed system. Additionally, it doesn’t make sense to have a pump fed water system on the roof of a fifteen story building, when gravity would be doing all the work for you, but maybe I just don’t understand big building design. Since we’re unable to tell what sort of system they were using—pump or gravity—it’s hard to determine if a decomposing body could have caused these issues.

It makes a difference, whether all four water tanks feed separately to different sections of the hotel, or if all four thousand gallons of water are fed into a single water main. Victoria mentioned that pumps are designed for specific water viscosity and suspended solids, that the simple fact of Lam’s decomposition could have been burning out the pump engines. Without schematics or further details, it’s hard to tell if the body decomp would have affected water pressure under the circumstances, or if there were other factors at play.

Stay tuned for Part Two! What do you think about this case, coffee beans? What are some of your questions?

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