LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — More than three years after a young woman’s body was found inside a water tank on the roof of a downtown Los Angeles hotel, the mystery surrounding her death has only grown.
Investigators closed the case in 2013, determining that Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old tourist from Canada, had died of an accidental drowning.
But some people continue to suspect foul play.
The case began as a search for a missing person. Lam was reported missing from the former Cecil Hotel on Jan. 26, 2013.
Security footage from that evening showed Lam in an elevator pressing buttons for multiple floors and acting strangely. She also stepped into and out of the hallway numerous times and was gesturing wildly.
Ten days later, a maintenance worker discovered Lam’s naked body inside a water tank on the hotel’s roof after hotel guests complained of low water pressure.
The Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office ruled her death an accidental drowning.
“The fact that it doesn’t feel like a very satisfying conclusion to her story, I think, has helped keep it fresh in my mind. But It also just seems almost a dismissive way of looking at her death and just saying: ‘Well, it was an accident and we’re done,'” said Katie Orphan, the manager of a nearby bookstore who was one of the last people to see Lam alive.
Orphan said people from all over the world often visit the store to ask questions about Lam’s death.
“Mysteries like this should not remain unsolved,” said Orphan, who remembered Lam coming in to buy books and music for her family in Vancouver. She said Lam worried about fitting the items into her luggage.
“It seemed like she had plans to return home, plans to give things to her family members and reconnect with them,” Orphan recalled.
Investigators said Lam suffered from bipolar disorder and listed it as a “significant condition” for her accidental drowning.
Dr. John Hiserodt, a former deputy coroner in Pittsburgh who has conducted thousands of autopsies, reviewed Lam’s autopsy and said this case was unusual.
He said the fact that the coroner called the death an accident meant it was neither suicide nor homicide.
“In my mind, there are some questions that I think need to be answered before you can really determine that this is a [an] accidental drowning,” Hiserodt said.
Among those questions – how Lam ended up inside the tank without her clothes on.
Doors and stairs leading to the hotel’s roof were locked. Only staff had access. Any forced entry would have triggered an alarm. The only other way onto the roof would have been by climbing out of a window and onto a platform, scaling a 10-foot ladder, pushing aside a 20-pound lid and jumping inside the tank.
Though Lam was bipolar, proper amounts of prescribed medications were found in her blood.
Based on the autopsy report alone, Hiserodt said it is possible Lam could have been suffocated by someone, who then threw her body into the tank.
“That’s why I say the better manner of death in this case is undetermined,” he said.
Many key details of how and why Lam got into the water tank are still unknown to the public, fueling speculation on social media that there’s more to the story.
For at least one person who came into contact with Lam shortly before her death, the investigation’s conclusion was less than satisfying.
Orphan said the case will continue to haunt her forever. “Anytime someone loses somebody they love, it should mean something. It should matter,” she said. “So people should remember her.”
The LAPD and coroner’s office declined repeated requests for comment, and so did Lam’s family and the former Cecil Hotel, now known as Stay on Main.