A new Netflix docuseries takes a deep look at one of California’s most notorious serial killer cases and Richard Ramirez, the 25-year-old man convicted of being the Night Stalker. (Jan. 11)
Spoiler alert: This story contains some details (but no major revelations) presented in “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.”
Which true-crime show should fans of the genre watch next? Consider the mystery solved: “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” (now streaming on Netflix) is an arresting new docuseries.
The series, directed by Joe Berlinger (“Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes”) and executive produced by Ron Howard, delves into the 2013 disappearance of 21-year-old Elisa Lam, a Vancouver native traveling solo through California. She was last seen at the ramshackle Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles’ destitute and perilous Skid Row, where she was staying.
Its low rates and transient appeal drew addicts and violent guests including serial killer Richard Ramirez (known as The Night Stalker).
The mystery surrounding Lam’s disappearance unfurls at a pace likely to keep the audience guessing and engaged until the final reveal. The examination of the hotel’s seedy past, Lam’s mindset, earlier footage, and suspicions of eager web detectives will keep viewers clicking “Next Episode.”
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The exterior of the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. (Photo: Netflix)
The hotel’s haunting history
The Cecil’s 700 rooms were home to a menacing past marred by many deaths. Amy Price, the general manager from 2007-17, estimates “there were thousands of 911 calls” and about 80 deaths during her tenure.
Price remembers touring the property with a maintenance manager knowledgeable about where guests had met their ends. “Along the way, he would just point and say, ‘Someone died here, someone died there,’” she recalls. “Suicides. Overdoses. Murders. At one point I think I just asked him, ‘Is there a room here that maybe somebody hasn’t died in?’”
It’s truly unbelievable that such a place stayed open.
Insight into Lam and the hours before she vanished
Lam documented her stream of consciousness on the social media site Tumblr. Her often personal thoughts help answer detectives’ questions. Did drugs play a role in her disappearance? It seems unlikely, as she reveals in one post: “I don’t abuse any drugs, I don’t drink alcohol.” Might she have met someone who wanted to harm her? She had written about being the target of unwanted advances. “I’m going out tonight,” she posted. “I really hope no creeper comes near me… Show the slightest inclination and they hound you.”
Lam also wrote about her bipolar disorder and thoughts of suicide. “A few good days followed by a week of sleeping. That is the pattern.” She also shared on the social media site that she had experienced a relapse: “It’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it?” she said of living with bipolar disorder. “I’m just so tired. So very tired. I don’t want to live like this.”
Security-camera footage captured by a hotel elevator shortly before Lam’s disappearance only intensifies confusion, raising questions about what could’ve caused her erratic behavior. First, she steps into the empty elevator and punches buttons for several floors. Suspicious of why the door remains open, she sticks her head out of the elevator, and jerks it from side to side to investigate the hallway. She then shrinks into a corner of the elevator to hide herself. Then she repeatedly enters and exits the elevator. At one point makes large, odd gestures with her arms.
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Invested internet sleuths
Journalist Josh Dean sums up the intrigue of the elevator footage perfectly in the docuseries: “You can’t help but wonder, why is she acting this way?’” When the video was released to the public it went viral, engrossing amateur sleuths who voiced suspicions of the LAPD and whether the elevator video had been manipulated.They formulated conspiracy theories and some inundated the inbox of the man they thought was responsible for Lam’s disappearance.
One amateur gumshoe, John Sobhani, estimates he visited the Cecil at least 10 times over the years to better comprehend Lam’s time at the hotel.
Their devotion is reminiscent of other documentaries, including 2019’s Netflix series “Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer,” in which zealous civilians successfully help authorities capture Canadian murderer Luka Magnotta.
But the ending of “Vanishing” is actually more like HBO’s limited drama series “The Undoing.” Sometimes the obvious answer is the real one.
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