Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown
Crime Seen: The Hotel Cecil
Amongst Los Angeles hotels the Hotel Cecil holds a unique place. It’s a marquee name that not only a lot of Angelenos know, but also many visitors too. It’s been the subject of numerous documentaries, articles and, even, a TV horror series, yet you can’t actually rent a room there (at time of publication). In fact, it’s been closed for years, even as its fame has spread, due to the Netflix docuseries Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, like never before. Why is that? Well, the title of the show is something of a give-away – a lot of people have, unfortunately, died at the Cecil. And two serial killers have stayed there. So, for people interested in true crime there is a particular fascination with it, as well as a desire to explain why so many horrible things have happened there. Is the Cecil somehow cursed? Is it just an evil place, if not to start with then, with its ghastly history, has it become one? The answer is, perhaps, a more prosaic one than most people want to hear, but really the only truly remarkable thing about the Cecil are things that have happened there, the hotel itself is, in many ways, quite ordinary.
The Hotel Cecil opened in 1924 on a then fashionable stretch of Main Street, named after the famous Cecil Hotel in London, one of the premiere establishments in the world at the time (the Royal Air Force was formed there in 1918). The Los Angeles Cecil was a little smaller than the original, but it had 700 rooms and catered to tourists and business travelers. Its location was considered pre-eminent for such an establishment. Just a few doors down was the downtown terminus for the Pacific Electric streetcar system, meaning that business travelers would have been able to take its trams to almost any part of the Los Angeles area. Only a couple of blocks East was Central Station – the main train terminus for Los Angeles.
On top of these factors downtown itself was a prime location. Before the corporatization of the U.S. economy, with its huge monopolies and quasi-monopolies, Los Angeles had an incredibly rich, diverse, eco-system of companies. Just in Southern California there were dozens of different banks, small department store chains, independent oil companies and – of course – movie production companies. There was a huge amount of manufacturing being done in the region, as well as shipbuilding and construction. All these hundreds and hundreds of local companies would have considered it crucial to have Class A offices in downtown LA to impress their clients and competitors. These factors made the Hotel Cecil a prime location for any business traveler or salesman coming here.
For any traveler Broadway, with its myriad department stores, restaurants and theaters, was less than ten minutes walk away, two blocks West.
Unfortunately for the hotel’s owners only five years after it opened the Wall Street stock-market crash and the onset of the Great Depression led to a gradual decline of Main Street, as it became absorbed by Skid Row. In addition to this general deterioration in the U.S. business climate there were several local changes that destroyed the advantages that the Cecil once possessed. Firstly, in 1939, Union Station opened, moving the main LA terminus a couple of miles to the North (Central Station closed at the same time), then, in 1950, the Pacific Electric Building closed as a terminus. At the same time downtown as a whole was declining, as many companies began to relocate to other parts of Southern California, as an office in the heart of Los Angeles no longer seemed to be so necessary.
Something else that emerged during this time was a fatal flaw in the original business plan: the Hotel Cecil did not have parking for cars. It’s often said that timing is everything in life – and unfortunately the Cecil’s was poor. When it was being planned and designed around 1920 parking wouldn’t even have been considered for any city hotel, but car ownership in Southern California exploded in the 1920’s. What this meant was, first of all, a growing traffic problem, which made getting out of downtown increasingly time-consuming, and then the closing of all the streetcar lines by 1961. Now the Cecil was not only cut-off from the stations and streetcars that were crucial to its customers, but it was marooned in an unfashionable, hard-to-get-to, backwater.
This would have necessitated the development of a new business plan. Without parking OR access to good public transport the only clientele the hotel could reasonably expect to attract would have been longer term tenants who didn’t have cars. In other words, low-income people. In practice this meant that the hotel more and more became a home for people that live on the margins of society, who have to hustle to survive, who were drawn by the central location and cheap rent. And even by the 1950’s the Hotel Cecil was developing a reputation like no other in Los Angeles, further complicating those efforts.
The first recorded suicide at the hotel was in 1927, when Percy Ormond Cook shot himself in the head after falling out with his wife and child. In 1930 a man called W. K. Norton killed himself by taking poison pills. The following year another man shot himself and the year after that a man died after being pinned against the wall by a truck at the rear entrance. In 1934 one Louis Borden killed himself by slashing his own throat with a razor.
Then in 1937 guests started jumping out of the windows. That year Grace Magro was found on the sidewalk with telephone cables wrapped around her. No one could be sure if she jumped or fell. Apparently, her “companion”, a young sailor, was asleep at the time and could shed no light. The year after that a man was found dead on the roof of the building next door and investigators surmised that he’d jumped from the Cecil too. A few years later a woman, called Margaret Brown jumped out of her room and landed on the hotel marquee.
Not surprisingly by then the Cecil had become known as ‘the Suicide Hotel’.
Perhaps the worst suicide was in 1962 when Pauline Otton and George Gianinni were both found dead on the sidewalk. The police assumed that they’d made a pact, before jumping out of the ninth-floor window of her room. Then the police realized that Gianinni was still wearing his shoes, meaning that he couldn’t have fallen more than a hundred feet, as if he had his shoes would have been thrown off when he landed by the impact. It turned out he was just minding his own business, walking down the street, when he was hit by Otton falling from the sky. The last thing she did while alive was commit murder.
Talking of which, the Cecil Hotel has also seen more than its fair share of murders. In 1964, Goldie Osgood (who was known as ‘the Pigeon Lady’, because she kept some of the birds in a cage on the roof) was found robbed, raped and strangled in her room. The police arrested a man who was seen walking around the neighborhood, covered in blood, but later cleared him and the killer was never found.
Incredibly, it gets worse! Not one, but two, serial killers stayed at the Cecil. Richard Ramirez, the infamous ‘Night Stalker’, is believed to have spent several weeks there while conducting his home invasion crime spree between 1984 and 1985. Ramirez was a devil worshipping rapist and killer who terrorized LA during this period, breaking into homes all over the city and attacking people while they slept. A night clerk at the time was certain that Ramirez stayed in a room on the top floor.
Many articles and documentaries will breathlessly tell you that he was spotted dropping his bloody clothes in the dumpsters out back when he returned from his nightly excursions. It sounds dramatic, but it never happened. How do I know? Because he always wore the same clothes, that’s how so many witnesses identified him – and why he stank to high heaven (because he didn’t even undress to wash). It does say something about the clientele of the Cecil though that someone like Ramirez could have stayed there for some time and none of them even noticed him.
A few years later, in 1991, an Austrian by the name of Johann Unterweger arrived in LA and where would he stay? The Hotel Cecil of course. Apparently, he chose it in homage to Ramirez. During the five weeks he spent there he brought three prostitutes back to his room, where he raped and murdered them. Johann, also known as ‘Jack’, had been convicted of murder in Austria, but was released in 1990 after a public campaign to free him. He then got a job for an Austrian magazine reporting on – of all things – crime and prostitution in LA. Even more incredibly he was a guest of the LAPD on ride-alongs, as they patrolled the red-light district, which was how he identified his future victims.
Bearing all this in mind you can imagine that, in February 2013, when residents at the hotel began to complain about the tap water looking cloudy and tasting weird, the hotel management weren’t particularly concerned. In fact, management completely ignored these murmurings of discontent until the water pressure began to drop. At that point a maintenance worker examined the roof water tanks and discovered the decomposing body of a young woman inside one of the tanks. She’d been there for nearly three weeks.
Further investigation revealed that the deceased was a Canadian tourist by the name of Elisa Lam, a guest of the hotel which, at the time, had created a separate budget hostel section of the building and branded it Stay On Main. Then an elevator surveillance video, recorded on the night that it seems she died, was found. In the video Lam is seen jumping in and out of the elevator and talking to someone else – a person that cannot be seen. Some have speculated that she was on drugs, but the autopsy found none in her system. Nor were there any signs on her body of a physical struggle or injuries.
It was a mysterious case that somehow seemed like it could only happen at the Hotel Cecil. Why, never mind how, would a young woman ascend the hair-raising external fire-escape onto the roof? And, even harder to explain, was her motivation to climb on top of the water tank, open the small hatch, and jump in. Was she trying to escape from someone? Was she high on drugs and hallucinating? Did someone else carry her up there, dropping her in the water tank to conceal another crime?
In the end I’m a big believer in the old Sherlock Holmes maxim:
When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1895
The impossibility of an unseen person carrying even a small inert woman, such as Lam, up the fire-escape onto the roof, and, again, up to the top of the water tank means this theory can be discarded right-away. Why would they do this anyway? It would make no sense. They could just throw her out of the window and the LAPD would probably rule it a suicide.
Had she taken drugs? Well, unfortunately she hadn’t been taking drugs – the medication that she had been prescribed for her bi-polar disorder. She’d experienced hallucinations and suicidal thoughts when not taking her medication in the past and – as unlikely as it seems – the only logical explanation is that in a psychotic state, brought on by her condition, she climbed up there herself. Tragically, she may not have realized that she wouldn’t be able to climb out of the water tank until after she’d got in it. The coroner issued a finding of death by accidental drowning, with her bi-polar disorder a significant factor.
In 2017 the Hotel Cecil closed for major renovation, which were planned to create a mixed-use development of loft apartments and hotel rooms. However, in December 2021, it was announced that it would become a supportive housing project for people who are experiencing homelessness or are housing insecure, run by the Skid Row Housing Trust. At the present time it would appear that the renovation work is ongoing, as the old lobby is still closed.
With this new, very positive in many ways, business plan, it seems like a new chapter in the unbelievable story of the Hotel Cecil is beginning, and that it won’t be available for visitors to stay at for the foreseeable future.
However, if that changes one day, and you do get the chance to stay there, and you hear a knock on the door in the wee small hours – don’t answer it! It’s not room service. The Cecil has never had it. Keep the door locked and the light on at all times. I’ve heard it on good authority that each door has four locks on it. Use them all! And put a chair in front too – just in case.
Our DTLA: Murder Mystery Ghost tour visits the Hotel Cecil every Saturday night, at 6pm (although we don’t of course enter, because it’s closed – but then again, would you want to?).
If you have any feedback on Crime Seen: the Hotel Cecil please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.
– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)