The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel Ending Reveals What Happened To Elisa Lam — & Another Insidious Twist
Warning: Major spoilers ahead about Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel finale, “The Hard Truth.”
There’s a moment in “Down the Rabbit Hole,” the third episode of Netflix’s Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, that suggests the case of Elisa Lam may not be as sensationally suspicious as it has seemed. In the first half of the chapter, “web sleuths,” as they are called throughout the series, descend upon the Cecil Hotel determined to find answers to what they believe is a macabre conspiracy. At this point in the docuseries, we know Elisa Lam is dead; her body was found nude in a water tank on the roof of the Cecil 18 days after she disappeared in 13. The question is now how Lam’s corpse ended up in such a disturbing position.
Journalist Josh Dean explains that many internet obsessives believe someone was manipulating Lam’s experience in the hotel. That nefarious aim, sleuths say, is the reason the elevator seen in the now-infamous video of Lam’s final known moments doesn’t close for minutes on end. Then, once sleuths go to the Cecil, they realize there’s a very sensible explanation: Lam accidentally pressed the “Door Hold” button when she entered the elevator. Door Hold, Youtuber John Lordan explains, keeps the door open for two minutes. No one was controlling Elisa Lam for a gruesome scheme — she just pressed the wrong button.
Finale “The Hard Truth” explains that pragmatic — if ultimately disheartening — sensibility can explain the entire tragedy of Elisa Lam. This upsetting reveal leads to Cecil Hotel’s ultimate message: mythologizing a true crime mystery may lead to an insidious conspiracy theory totally untethered to the already devastating truth — and hurt a lot of people along the way.
“The Hard Truth” opens with a look at the months of work put into determining Lam’s cause of death. Forensic pathologist Dr. Jason Tovar explains that the autopsy gave inconclusive results. The episode reminds us that Lam’s body showed no signs of struggle or assault (physical or sexual), suggesting she was not the victim of violence in her final moments. The state of Lam’s body also means it is unlikely an attacker dragged her to the water tank and dropped her in, since she lacked the post-mortem trauma common with such a precarious situation.
Months after Lam’s body was found, a toxicology report confirms Lam was not drunk or on any illicit drugs when she died, despite her unusual behaviour in the Cecil elevator footage. Still the report does hold a clue. Lam was on at least four prescription medications for her bipolar disorder. The medications were found in her bloodstream, but their levels were “interestingly” low, Dr. Tovar says. Upon reviewing Lam’s physical belongings at the scene, police realized she had more of her meds than she should have considering their fill date. All together, this evidence suggests “she was undertaking her medications,” Tovar says. Clinical and forensic neuropsychologist Dr. Judy Ho agrees with this assessment.
Retired homicide detective Greg Kading and Cecil manager Amy Price reveal the anecdotal evidence to support the likelihood that Lam was experiencing a “psychotic episode,” as Dr. Ho says, while in L.A. because she was undertaking her medication. Lam behaved erratically with her Cecil Hotel roommates, leaving paranoid handwritten notes on their beds (Price says she never mentioned this detail publicly). Lam was removed by security from a live audience production in Burbank due to similar concerning behaviour. Lam announced she was “crazy” in the middle of the Cecil lobby. Homicide detective Tim Marcia says the Lam family revealed that Elisa Lam had a history of not taking her bipolar medications. When that happened “several times previously,” she would have hallucinations and hide under her bed for refuge. She was hospitalized at least once for care in this state. Police did not share these details with the information-hungry public.
With all of this evidence at hand, the police rule Lam’s death an accident in June 2013, four months after her body was found. They believe Lam feared for her life due to bipolar-related hallucinations, ran to the roof for protection (elevator footage confirms she was on the 14th floor of the Cecil, which has multiple points of roof access), and climbed into the water tank for protection. Once in the water tank, Lam was unable to escape and removed her clothing to fight hypothermia or better tread water. Eventually, she died of drowning.
“All of the background information that’s used to rule this as an accident is not necessarily made available to the public,” forensic pathologist Dr. Tovar says. “I think that for people on the internet — you really don’t have the full story in front of you. You don’t have all the facts.”
As “Hard Truth” comes to a close, the journalists and sleuths fixated on the Lam case must come to terms with the facts of the death. While there many have been countless “brain scratching” twists in this “mystery,” each one can be explained by science and evidence. There is no conspiracy here, no matter how much people may want there to be. By sensationalizing the tragedy, sleuths blow past the most devastating reality of all: A family lost their daughter, who was in the midst of a painful mental health crisis. “People who cared about Elisa and knew her and loved her look at the case very differently. For them… it’s hell. It’s traumatic,” Josh Dean says.
It’s not a game. It’s not a puzzle. It’s an indelible catastrophe. It’s one that ruined lives beyond the Lams, as Pablo Vergara, aka death metal musician “Morbid,” reveals. Sleuths decided Vergara was the person who murdered Lam. They inundated him to death threats and had his YouTube page, email, and Facebook deactivated. Vergara almost died by suicide in response to the vitrol. Beyond Lam’s accidental death ruling, hard evidence proves that Vergara was actually in Mexico at the time of Lam’s stay at the Cecil. He is still living with the debilitating effects of his brush with “cyberbullying,” as he calls it, despite the now widely accepted timeline of Lam’s accidental death.
No matter how many investigative YouTube videos you may watch or “murderino” podcasts you download, you may never have all the facts of an internet “conspiracy.” Holding onto that truth might be the only thing standing between you and actual damage.