Tucked into downtown Los Angeles is a 19-floor hotel with 700 rooms and an otherwise unremarkable exterior. But within the walls of this structure, nightmarish scenes of humanity's darkness unfolded. It's the Cecil Hotel, an L.A. cultural touchstone, a haunted abyss, and a symbol of opulence riven by urban decay.
"In all my years as a historical journalist, I have never come across a building where so many documented terrible things have happened," emailed Hadley Meares, who also has a podcast called Underbelly L.A. "By far, it is the most cursed space I have ever come across."
It's also the setting of one of the creepiest viral videos of the internet era, an elevator surveillance tape showing the last minutes of Elisa Lam, a Canadian student and former guest of the hotel. A Netflix series explores her disappearance and other mysteries that the hotel spawned.
The Cecil started life very differently. Built in 1924, it was intended to be a jewel of the downtown area, featuring a marble lobby, alabaster statues and gorgeous stained-glass windows.
That dream very quickly became a nightmare.
Just a few years later, the Great Depression began strangling the nation. Vast swaths of L.A. near the hotel degraded into a poverty-stricken area known as Skid Row, where thousands of homeless people gathered.
"The Cecil opened during the boom time days of the Roaring Twenties, and there were high hopes for its success," said Meares, when we spoke to her in 2021. "However, the stock market crash [of 1929] and subsequent depression really hurt downtown Los Angeles, particularly the area where the Cecil was located. The area went further downhill after World War II, and the Cecil became known as a cheap home of last resort for lost souls, criminals and the underserved elderly."
From the 1940s through the 1960s, guest suicides occurred with regularity. Some unfortunate people died within their rooms, from poison, gunshots or razor blades, while others flung themselves from the rooftop. One jumper even landed on – and killed – a pedestrian on the sidewalk below. An unstable woman threw her newborn baby out of the window.
In 1964, hotel resident Goldie "The Pigeon Lady of Pershing Square" Osgood, was brutally murdered and her case was never solved. The retired telephone operator had earned her warm nickname for her habit of feeding birds nearby.
The Night Stalker Checks In
Darker still is the hotel's link to Richard Ramirez, a serial killer who lived at the hotel for weeks during his long and sensational murder spree in the mid-1980s. Known as the "Night Stalker," Ramirez was convicted of 13 murders and other offenses that were noted for their extreme brutality and sadistic twists.
Ramirez was known to prowl among Skid Row residents. According to some sources, after the killings, he'd discard his blood-spattered clothing in the hotel's trash bins without anyone taking much notice.
So casual was Ramirez about his deeds that he'd sometimes lounge around in the homes of his victims, partaking of snacks from the fridge while soaked in their blood. He also burglarized the homes, stealing cash and valuables, and in some instances, even body parts.
"Just thinking of Richard Ramirez, allegedly bringing eyeballs of his victims back into his filthy room at the Cecil chills me to the bone," said Meares. That's exactly what he did after shooting and stabbing Maxine Levenia Zazzara, a 44-year-old woman, in 1985.
After a circus-like trial in which Ramirez reveled in the spotlight, the Night Stalker was sentenced to death. But before he could be executed, he died in 1989 from complications of cancer.
At the Cecil, though, his horrific memory lived on. Just a short time later, another serial killer, Austrian Jack Unterweger, lived at the hotel for a time. Authorities believe he chose the location intentionally as a dark homage of sorts to Ramirez, whose crimes and subsequent celebrity were attractive to Unterweger.
Unterweger was, after all, a man who'd been previously convicted of murder at the age of 23. His life sentence in Austria was shortened to only 15 years, largely because of his writing prowess and intelligence, which he leveraged to convince others of his supposed complete rehabilitation.
Then, he traveled extensively, killing women in other countries, too.
He eventually murdered at least three prostitutes during his time at the Cecil Hotel. He was extradited to Austria and convicted. But the same night he was convicted, he hanged himself in his cell.
All of these grisly details serve as the historical backdrop for 2013, when the hotel became the setting for what's become one of the creepiest unsolved deaths imaginable.
The Mystery of Elisa Lam
Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old student from Vancouver, was reported missing at the beginning of February 2013. She had been staying at the hotel in a section offering hostel-like accommodations to foreign tourists. (The hotel also had another part with private rooms for regular guests and a third section with low-cost "single room occupancy" and shared bathrooms, for long-term residents.)
By the middle of the month, building occupants had reported instances of low water pressure, as well as discolored and malodorous water dripping from the taps. Maintenance workers opened the hotel's water cistern and found Lam's body inside.
Surveillance video from the elevator, which is still online, seems to portray a young woman in distress. Lam enters the elevator, pressing multiple buttons, peering in and out of the elevator as if she's being pursued, and wildly gesticulates as if she's having an animated conversation with someone.
Could she have ingested too many recreational drugs? Was she being harassed or stalked by a murderer? Or was she having a psychotic breakdown?
To this day, no one knows exactly how Lam's naked body wound up in the water tank. The door to the roof was locked. And no one can explain how the cistern's heavy lid was closed behind her.
"To me, the fact the Lam's phone was never found — or at least the police have never released that it was found — is the most enticing aspect of the case," said Meares. "Think of what that phone could tell us!"
Officially, Lam's case is called an accidental drowning, and her bipolar disorder is sometimes cited as a potential cause of her strange behavior. Experts interviewed for the Netflix series hypothesized, based on a toxicology report, that she'd been taking too little of her medication for her bipolar disorder, experienced a psychotic episode and climbed into the water tank for protection.
With all of the strange and awful incidents that happened there, it's easy to wonder: Is the Cecil Hotel some sort of a magnet for evil that draws out the worst in human nature? Or is it simply that in an area so permeated with suffering and depravity, it was bound to be the scene of countless acts of violence and despair?
The Cecil is known – unsurprisingly — for hauntings and paranormal activity. Ghost hunters have scoured its halls for clues to supernatural events. And its creepy past inspired the fifth season of American Horror Story.
The Cecil closed in 2017 and reopened in December 2021 as a "supportive housing project" open to any Los Angeleno with a government housing voucher. But the Los Angeles Times reported in December 2022 that two-thirds of it was still unoccupied. "Even with solid funding and the best of intentions, the Cecil project has struggled to overcome a system beset with a slow-moving bureaucracy and multiple failure points, and to offer a housing stock that serves a population with myriad needs," the paper said.
Now That's Interesting
In 1987, rock band U2 wanted to make a raucous live music video for their hit song, "Where The Streets Have No Name." The band skirted authorities and filmed in downtown L.A. amidst rowdy fans and Skid Row residents. You can see the Cecil Hotel in the background as they perform.
Originally Published: Feb 1, 2021
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