For days, residents of the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles believed something was amiss. At least one said there was flooding in one of the fourth-floor rooms, while others complained about weak water pressure.
At least one of those complaints led a hotel maintenance worker to check Tuesday on one of the large metal water cisterns on the roof, where he discovered the body of an unidentified woman in her 20s at the bottom of the tank.
Authorities said late Tuesday that the body was that of Elisa Lam, 21, a Vancouver, Canada, woman last seen at the hotel Jan. 31. Police gave scant details about how the body might have ended up in the tank.
"We're not ruling out foul play," said LAPD Sgt. Rudy Lopez, noting that the location of the remains "makes it suspicious."
Los Angeles police investigators searched the roof of the Cecil with the aid of dogs when Lam was reported missing about three weeks ago. Lopez said he didn't know if the tanks were examined.
"We did a very thorough search of the hotel," he said. "But we didn't search every room; we could only do that if we had probable cause" that a crime had been committed.
Once a destination for the rich and famous in the 1930s and 1940s, the Cecil has gradually deteriorated -- mirroring the decay of downtown Los Angeles, particularly in the skid row area. With rock-bottom rents and flexible stays, the historic 1927 building attracted those who were a step away from homelessness.
The Cecil also became a magnet for criminal activity. Most notably it was the occasional home to infamous serial killers Jack Unterweger and Richard "Night Stalker" Ramirez. Even after a multimillion-dollar makeover in 2008, police said they frequently respond to the Cecil for calls relating to domestic abuse and narcotics.
In 2010, the hotel was the scene of a bizarre incident in which a Los Angeles city firefighter who had been honored as paramedic of the year said he was stabbed while responding to a distress call. But police found inconsistencies in the story and no assailant was ever located.
On Tuesday, the Cecil grappled with a deeper mystery.
According to detectives with the LAPD's Robbery-Homicide Division, Lam came to Los Angeles from Vancouver on Jan. 26. While they did not discuss her exact movements or whether she visited anyone here, they believe her ultimate destination was Santa Cruz, Calif. Lam's reasons for visiting California were unclear, detectives said.
She was last seen Jan. 31 inside the elevator of the hotel. In surveillance footage, Lam is seen pushing buttons for multiple floors and at one point stepping out of the elevator, waving her arms.
A cause of death is still to be determined by county coroner's officials, Lopez said.
A locked door that only employees have access to and a fire escape are the only ways to get to the roof. The door is equipped with an alarm system that would notify the hotel that someone was up there, Lopez said.
Annette Suzuki, a San Francisco resident staying at the hotel, was revolted by the discovery of the body.
"I heard there that on the roof there was a dead body in the water tank. I'm really disgusted," she said. "Wouldn't you be if there was a dead body in the water tank you're drinking from?"
Capt. Jaime Moore with the Los Angeles Fire Department said the tank where the body was found supplied the rooms with water for showers and sinks, as well as being used to clean the hotel's linens. The Department of Public Health took a water sample Tuesday and determined there was no biohazard.
Rescue crews cut into the side of the cistern with a chain saw to remove the body after draining the holding tank.
Pippa Beaumont, 26, of South Africa rushed out of the Cecil on Tuesday afternoon, pulling two suitcases and a white bag along Main Street. She hadn't bothered to check in.
"I'm a bit freaked out, I'm traveling alone," said Beaumont, who had just flown in from Canada as part of her vacation in North America and heard about the body. "I never would've thought."
Demetrius Wyman, 23, a downtown resident, said he saw posters of Lam around the neighborhood since she vanished.
"It's common for people to go missing around here," he said, "but not dead and missing, especially in a water tank."
Copyright 2013 - Los Angeles Times
McClatchy-Tribune News Service