Elisa Lam’s Cause of Death & Autopsy: What Happened at the Cecil Hotel?

Elisa Lam

YouTube/LAPD Elisa Lam

Elisa Lam was a 21-year-old woman on an adventure when she died at the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles’ skid row. While web sleuths and conspiracy theorists were looking for the person who killed her, the autopsy report tells a story of a tragedy and mental health struggles.

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel digs into her death, the theories surrounding her disappearance and the infamy of the Cecil Hotel. The first season was released on Netflix Wednesday, February 10, 2021.

It was the release of a video of Lam acting strangely in an elevator that caused web sleuths to latch onto her mysterious disappearance and try to find answers themselves in the strange case. The documentary picked apart the answers to questions raised in conspiracy theories and offered logical explanations for how the young Tumblr blogger wound up dead in a water tank.

Here’s what you need to know:

Lam’s Full Autopsy Report Lists Her Cause of Death as Accidental Due to Drowning With Bipolar Disorder as a Contributing Factor

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Lam’s full autopsy report says that she died accidentally due to drowning. Bipolar disorder is listed as a significant contributing factor. She had no signs of trauma, the report said.

The external examination lists a quarter-inch abrasion on her left knee, but said she did not have any external traumatic injuries or internal injuries. There was no evidence of a sexual assault.

Some web sleuths also wanted to know, “Did Elisa Lam have drugs in her system?” The toxicology report indicates she did not have alcohol, marijuana or cocaine in her system, or a slew of other drugs. She was tested for more than a dozen drugs, which were primarily listed as “not detectable” (ND) in her system or “quantity not sufficient” (QNS). The only drugs listed as present were buproprion metabolites and venlafaxine, drugs prescribed to treat depression, and ibuprofen. It was not possible to test for some of the drugs because of the limited sample of blood available in Lam’s body when she was found.

Associate Deputy Medical Examiner Jason P. Tovar, who appeared on the documentary, and Senior Deputy Medical Examiner Yulai Wang signed the report and wrote an opinion, which says:

The decedent died as a result of drowning. A complete autopsy examination showed no evidence of trauma and toxicology studies did not show acute drug or alcohol intoxication. Decedent had a history of bipolar disorder for which she was prescribed medication. However, quantitation in the blood was not performed due to limited sample availability. Therefore, interpretation is limited. Police investigation did not show evidence of foul play. A full review of the circumstances of the case and consultation do not support intent to harm oneself. The manner of death is classified as accident.

Investigators Offered Explanations for How Lam Died in the Cecil Hotel Water Tank & Described the Events Leading Up to Her Death

One of the first questions raised in the documentary is whether someone else was with Lam when she appeared on surveillance footage in the Cecil Hotel elevator. It was the last time she was seen alive, and her strange behavior caused suspicion. Lam wrote on her Tumblr blog, nouvelle-nouveau, about wanting to meet up with someone on her journey. Web sleuths wondered if she met someone, and the meeting turned awry. Some theorized that the elevator did not move because someone was holding the button to keep the door from closing. YouTuber John Lordan examined the video and the elevator, and saw that Lam pushed a button herself to keep the doors open for two minutes.

Investigators on the show said she was not taking her prescribed medications for bipolar disorder, which was detailed in her post-mortem toxicology report. Judy Ho, a clinical and forensic neuropsychologist, explained Lam suffered from Bipolar 1, which is a serious form of the condition and can include psychotic effects. Lam’s sister, Sara Lam, said that Elisa Lam would sometimes have episodes where she believed someone was after her. Investigators believe that Lam’s behavior in the elevator was one of those times, and that she went onto the roof and climbed into the water tank trying to hide.

Investigators explained that Lam would have been able to climb back out of the tank if it was full, but when it was being used, the water level would be lower and she could not have climbed back out. Lam would have to tread water to stay afloat, and they postulated she took her clothes off to reduce the weight. Hypothermia may have also kicked in, which may cause people to remove clothing as physiological conditions take place in the body.

Amy Price, who was the hotel manager of the Cecil Hotel and the Stay on Main at the time, elaborated on Lam’s mental health condition in the days leading up to her death. She said Lam was bothering other guests in her shared room, leaving notes that said “Go home” and “go away.” Price said Lam locked the door and asked other guests for a password to get in. Lam said to Price she was “crazy,” “but so is LA.” Lam was moved to a private room.

Investigators also said that if a person took Lam up to the roof, she would have signs of trauma because of the difficult climb up a ladder to the roof. Another key sticking point for web sleuths was how Lam could have returned the hatch to the water tank. However, authorities said it was a mistake when it was reported that the hatch was closed. Santiago Lopez, a hotel employee who found Lam’s body, said the hatch was open when he saw her body floating in the tank.

“This completely changes the scope of possibilities for how she died,” Lordan said.

Lam wrote about her mental health struggles on her Tumblr account, saying that if someone reveals they have depression, support them and don’t ask why. She also wrote about her quest to find her purpose and about potential.

“That’s the thing about potential. It was so close,” she wrote. “What could have been and didn’t happen breaks your heart.”

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