In January 2013, 21-year-old Canadian Elisa Lam decided to travel America, beginning her journey in Los Angeles. Whilst staying at The Cecil Hotel in downtown LA, she went missing, and was subsequently found dead in a water tank located on the roof of the hotel 19 days later. The case went viral on the internet, and led to numerous amateur investigators making incorrect conclusions about the circumstances of her disappearance and death. In this blog, NetWatch analyst Becky Davies outlines how crucial it is for investigators to remain unbiased whilst working on a case.
Within any investigation, gaps in intelligence are identified. Sometimes assumptions can be made to fill these gaps, however it is key that these assumptions are free from bias and baseless opinions. Indeed, It can be easy to be lured in by the challenge of putting the pieces together, but by making assumptions based on your own preconceptions and ideas rather than factual evidence, investigators can get further and further away from the truth, and this will inevitably lead to incorrect conclusions. The Cecil Hotel case is a perfect example of why assumptions must be based on evidence alone.
Following Ms Lam’s disappearance, the police made the decision to release footage of her to the public, in the hope that she could be located. This caused a media frenzy, and attracted multiple amateur web sleuths to the case.
These sleuths began analysing the footage, which was a short video of her acting strangely in a lift in The Cecil Hotel. They commented that the lift stayed open an unusually long time, and that Ms Lam’s movements suggested she was scared of someone in the corridor who may have been preventing the lift moving.
After Ms Lam had been identified and her body found in a water tank at the top of The Cecil Hotel, the web sleuths began to analyse her social media accounts, and deduced that she was creative, an introvert, and was not the type of person to disappear without contacting her family. This led to assertions that Ms Lam had been abducted, rather than disappearing of her own accord.
In their hunt for a perpetrator, internet investigators targeted a death metal musician, ‘Morbid’ (Pablo Vergara), as he had uploaded videos of himself staying at The Cecil Hotel. In addition, just days after Ms Lam went missing he released a music video which included the murder of a young woman and a song which described someone drowning. Sleuths decided that this was enough evidence that he was a killer, and he began to receive death threats. He was also visited by federal government agents, and as a result of the harassment attempted suicide and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
Mr Vergara later shared that he was in Mexico at the time of Ms Lam’s disappearance, and that the online footage of him at the hotel was posted in 2012, a year prior to the incident. Ms Lam’s family also revealed that she suffered from both bipolar disorder and depression, and had a history of not taking her medication. Toxicology results on her body proved that Ms Lam was not taking her prescribed levels of medication at the time of her death, which could have caused abnormal behaviour. Similarly, further analysis of the released video footage showed that Ms Lam pressed a number of buttons whilst in the lift, including one which held the lift doors open for an extended period.
The dual conclusions that Ms Lam had been abducted and that Mr Vergara was the perpetrator are clear examples of bias and clouded vision from web sleuths, presuming that they knew Ms Lam personally from content she had posted online, making incorrect assumptions based on faulty analysis of the footage, and targeting Vergara because they wanted to make their prejudiced assumptions fit to solve the case.
The Cecil Hotel case and others like it highlight the importance of following proper investigative processes. At NetWatch, our 360 attribution system ensures that we only report on the correct individuals. Attribution varies on a case-by-case basis; however, we always strive to confirm an exact date of birth match on an individual’s social media profiles, links or reference to cohabitants at the subject’s home address, visual identity matches, and other unique identifying information on their accounts. This, along with our partnerships with industry-leading training providers, as well as our dedicated in-house training team, ensures that our analysts are fully equipped with the skillsets to ensure that all our investigations are conducted ethically, accurately and reliably.