Photo by William Duke
I recently spent a few nights at the notorious Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. My first visit to the Cecil was about ten years earlier, while attending an event at the grand old Olympic Auditorium. At the time I knew the hotel’s dark history, which is what initially attracted me. I knew about the murders and suicides. I knew about the Night Stalker’s tenure in the Cecil during a particularly prolific period of his life. But now, with the bizarre death of Elisa Lam, and the hotel’s influence on the fifth season of the charming FX series American Horror Story, the Cecil deserved a closer look.
I’ve always liked the character of the dark, seedier parts of any city. Ghosts tend to come out of the mouths of old buildings, and the present seems to submit to the weight of the past. Everyone has a story. Many are operating under the radar in a secretive, shadowy alternate universe. Others are merely feeding the faces of addiction, the great equalizer.
The Cecil Hotel opened in 1924, in what was at the time an upscale, pre-Depression section of downtown Los Angeles. During the 1930s the area surrounding the hotel quickly became skid row, so the Cecil was downgraded to a reasonably priced bed for traveling salesmen. By the 1950s, the hotel had fallen into disrepair, housing low-income transients and long-term single room occupants with shared bathrooms.
For a destitute transient often ravaged by addiction, without any prospects for a better quality of life, suicide often becomes the most reasonable option. The Cecil soon became a perfect destination for leaps of desperation onto the unforgiving street below.
The Cecil was also reportedly one of the last places Elizabeth Short was seen before becoming immortalized as the chopped-up, beautiful Black Dahlia, whose remains ultimately wound up as a grisly display on Norton Avenue. Her troubled life soon became tantalizing media fodder. I’ll go into greater detail on Elizabeth Short in another chapter.
In the late 1950s, the Los Angeles Times reported that area residents had started referring to the Cecil as “The Suicide.” Although there were reports of self-inflicted gunshot wounds and pill popping, jumping from windows remained the popular method for doing the deed. In 1962, after a heated argument with her husband, Pauline Orton jumped from her window on the ninth floor. The 27-year-old Orton succeeded in ending her life, but not before landing on 65-year-old George Gianinni, who happened to be walking on the sidewalk below. Both were killed instantly.
One could make the argument that any hotel housing low-income, long-term residents in the heart of skid row was ripe for foul play. However, nothing could prepare the Cecil for the diabolical dweller that would soon tip the scales so far south of heaven that there would be no turning back.
Richard Leyva Munoz Ramirez was born to Julian and Mercedes on February 29, 1960 in the border town of El Paso, Texas. The youngest of five, Richard was a shy, sweet child with soulful eyes, high cheekbones and an inquisitive nature. He enjoyed solitude. His father was stern and strict, and abused his children physically and mentally, as his father had abused him. Richard often took his sleeping bag and slept in a nearby cemetery to escape his father’s wrath.
Trying to put together the puzzle of how a Richard Ramirez could come into being is a complex task. His early influences coupled with his environment only offer part of an explanation. I think some of us have an inherent darkness that follows us during our impressionable early development. I know I did. Where we go with that dark passenger is of great consequence in shaping who we become. Knowing and acting upon societal virtues is paramount.
The environment in which Richard was born was not far removed from the lingering effects of the U.S. government’s nuclear bomb testing in nearby New Mexico. Birth defects were common, and the government took no responsibility for the damage inflicted on the community, livestock, and drinking water. One of Richard’s siblings was brought into the world with large lumps on his head and neck. Fortunately, the lumps eventually dissipated, and he suffered no lingering effects. His brother Joseph wasn’t so lucky. Seemingly healthy when he was born, Joseph couldn’t stop crying, and was in constant pain. It was eventually determined that his bones were not forming correctly. He would be plagued by painful surgeries, and have to wear dehumanizing leg braces for the rest of his life.
With the Night Stalker in utero, Mercedes Ramirez took a job at the Tony Lama boot factory. Richard’s father had a good job working for the Santa Fe Railroad, but with five mouths to feed, the additional income was much appreciated. Working at the boot factory eventually started taking its toll on Mercedes. She began to have dizzy spells, which often resulted in fainting, and ultimately led to her giving notice. The benzene, xylene, and toluene she was inhaling throughout her shifts were at the time thought to be harmless. One can only guess what effect these chemicals had on Richard’s development.
As Richard grew into adolescence, he idolized his cousin Mike. A Vietnam veteran with many confirmed kills, Mike captivated Richard with tales of murder and rape in a faraway land. Mike had photos to accompany his tales of dead soldiers and captive women tied to trees. Mike claimed that he raped and killed these women, and had the gory pictures to prove it. These snapshots should have been traumatic for a young impressionable mind, but Richard was fascinated. Indeed, Richard soon discovered that the images left him sexually excited.
Julian and Mercedes soon realized Mike was a bad influence on Richard, and forbid the two from seeing each other. They eventually backed down, reasoning that with Mike’s military background he could potentially instill in Richard a sense of responsibility. Instead, Mike taught Richard the ways of a predator in the jungle. How to stealthily move around in the dark with precision, and wait unseen for hours in the stillness of night. This knowledge was essential for Richard’s current career aspirations, which consisted of robbing houses and selling the plunder for cash.
Mike’s girlfriend Jessie was critical of his relationship and influence on the young, wide-eyed Richard. She didn’t approve of them cruising around all day smoking pot and talking about Mike’s atrocities in Vietnam, and she wasn’t shy about expressing her concerns.
Richard’s relationship with Mike came to an abrupt end one hot summer night. On May 4, 1973, during a heated argument, Mike took a 38-caliber revolver he oddly kept in the refrigerator and shot Jessie point blank in the forehead, killing her instantly. Richard witnessed the entire affair. He later stated that the incident played for years like a loop in his head, and the psychological repercussions that go with such an experience cannot be understated.
Mike eventually pled innocent by reason of insanity, and the jury agreed, sending him to a Texas mental hospital. Richard’s life took a turn for the worse after Mike was locked away. He skipped school, argued with his father regularly, and distanced himself from the remaining people he was close to. He found solace in frequent visits with his brother in Los Angeles. He fell in love with the grime and urban decay so prevalent in Los Angeles. He also saw LA as fertile ground, with women to prey upon and wealthy homes to hone his creepy-crawling skills.
But Richard was left with a nagging internal struggle. His intense sexual desires were in direct conflict with his rigid Catholic upbringing. To remedy this dilemma, he came to the conclusion that Satan was in control of his existence, and pledged his allegiance and loyalty to the Dark Lord. Richard could now act out his misguided compulsions without the pesky misgivings that come with fearing God and hellfire in the afterlife.
In early 1984, Richard hopped a bus to California.
Upon arrival in Los Angeles, Richard checked into the Cecil Hotel. The Cecil was cheap, and he liked its proximity to the Greyhound bus station. He would often eat breakfast at Margarita’s next door, and then peruse the porno magazines at Dave’s Adult Bookstore. Eager to indulge his fetishistic nature, he usually went right for the magazines that had bondage and sadomasochistic themes.
Sparing the reader the ghastly nature of his crimes, let’s just say that upon his arrival in Los Angeles, Richard Leyva Munoz Ramirez followed his destiny to become one of the most prolific rapists and serial killers in American history. He would often leave his bloody clothing in a dumpster in the alley behind the Cecil before heading back to his room to blast his beloved heavy metal music. He’s been immortalized in the media by the barbarity of his crimes, his courtroom antics, and the lovelorn black-clad women who stood in line for hours hoping to get a seat in court just to be in his presence.
Richard Ramirez – Photo courtesy of the LA Times
The Night Stalker died on June 7, 2013, while awaiting execution in San Quentin. In the end, his convictions were:
-13 counts of murder
-5 counts of attempted murder
-11 counts of sexual assault
-14 counts of burglary
After sentencing, Ramirez defiantly told reporters, “Big deal. Death always went with the territory. See you in Disneyland.”
Meanwhile, the imposing Cecil Hotel stood tall in downtown Los Angeles.
Then, in 1991, Jack Unterweger blew into town.
Jack Unterweger was born in Austria in 1950, the result of a short-lived union of an American soldier and a Viennese prostitute. Jack could never shake the shame of his mother’s whoring, and by adulthood Jack had a seething rage bubbling under a rather charming exterior. As a result, Jack killed several prostitutes, and was eventually caught and sent to prison. He dryly stated at trial that with every prostitute he killed, he envisioned killing his mother.
He was sentenced to life in an Austrian prison. While serving time he became something of a celebrity, penning short stories, plays, and a much-touted autobiography. He soon became revered by the art-house literary scene in Vienna, and enjoyed the notoriety, money, and power his creations allowed. He was seen as a victim of circumstance, and slated for an early “rehabilitated” release from prison after serving only 16 years of a life sentence.
In the summer of 1991, Jack found himself in Los Angeles, checking into the Cecil Hotel in homage to Richard Ramirez. The darkness of the sinister structure beckoned. In a laughable twist of irony, Jack had been commissioned by an Austrian magazine to write about true crime, specifically prostitution, on the sordid streets of Los Angeles.
Demons of old soon resurfaced, as Unterweger killed three prostitutes in rapid succession, strangling each of them with their own brassieres. The jig was up.
After a brief transcontinental chase, and unable to charm his way out of his murderous conundrum, Jack was finally tracked down in Miami. He had killed a few prostitutes in Austria before heading to LA, and now had to face the music for his international adventures. He was ultimately convicted of nine homicides and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
But a life sentence was not to be. Besides, prison wasn’t Jack’s style. On June 29, 1994, he hung himself with a pair of pants from a rod in his cell. He could never silence the rage of his conception: ashamed of his mother, and deeply disappointed in his father.
For the next several years, it was business as usual at 640 South Main Street in downtown Los Angeles.
In early 2013, British tourist Michael Baugh and his wife, enjoying the amenities of the Cecil Hotel, noticed a pronounced drop in their water pressure. Come to think of it, the water that did trickle out of the faucet tasted funny and smelled terrible. When other guests complained, maintenance was called in to check the water tanks on top of the roof. When they opened the hatch of one of the four cisterns, they discovered the problem. Looking up at them inside the 10-foot tall, 1,000-gallon tank was the nude body of 21-year-old Canadian tourist Elisa Lam.
Elisa left her native Vancouver for a sun-kissed, solo California road trip. She hit Los Angeles first, with plans to visit Santa Cruz and other popular northern California destinations. She used public transportation, and was diligent about keeping in touch with her family. During her short stay at the Cecil Hotel, something strange and terrible occurred. What exactly happened to Elisa Lam would fuel international speculation, and initiate widespread Internet chatter of demonic possession and supernatural phenomenon.
After her body was found, a terrifying bit of hotel surveillance footage surfaced. Security cameras caught Lam darting in and out of an elevator, frantically pushing buttons for every floor. She appeared distraught, and seemed to be running from someone, or something. She stepped out of the elevator and stood still for a brief moment before her limbs began to twist and contort in an unnerving, unnatural manner.
The world witnessed the peculiar final moments of Elisa Lam’s life, immortalized in grainy, unsettling security camera footage in a notorious skid row hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles County Coroner’s official manner of death for Elisa Lam was accidental. The cause of death was drowning, with bipolar disorder being a contributing factor.
Elisa Lam surveillance footage – Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Police Department
I laid in bed in my room on the seventh floor, staring at the ceiling in fits of insomnia. I thought about Elisa Lam, and imagined her lovely spirit still roaming the halls, frightened and unaware that the fear was in her mind. Hers was a sad fate. I think the most plausible explanation is that Elisa had a psychotic episode, which ultimately led to her very tragic death. How she got past the security door to access the roof, scale the water tank, squeeze into a small port on top of the tank and drown remains a bit of a mystery.
In 2015, the curious goings-on at the Cecil Hotel inspired American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy to dedicate an entire season of the popular TV show to a downtown LA hotel. The fictional Hotel Cortez is a Cecil doppelganger, though much more opulent, with a decidedly chicer clientele. Lady Gaga starred as the sensual house vampire, and series mainstay Evan Peters co-starred as the ghost of a notorious serial killer looking to add to his gruesome legacy.
My experience with the Cecil Hotel has been positive, and the staff has always been courteous and accommodating. I found my room to be clean and serviceable, though I couldn’t seem to rouse myself out of bed in time for the continental breakfast in the dining hall. The room Richard Ramirez lived in, the room where Jack Unterweger stayed, and the Elisa Lam room are “off limits.” No worries though, the hotel is creepy enough.
Before checking out, I asked the gentleman working the front desk if he knew a bit about the history of the hotel. He said no, and handed me the business card of the current manager. When I called her to try to get some inside information, she was pretty defensive and all she would say was that the hotel was built in 1924.
As a fan of haunted history, I can understand why the Cecil would try to distance itself from its infamous past. However, it will take more than a name change and a coat of paint to deny the ghosts that still reside deep within the bowels of the building. Indeed, most old buildings have a history, but few have the notoriety of the Cecil Hotel.
The Cecil Hotel – Photo by William Duke
My Room at the Cecil – Photo by William Duke
The Elevator – Photo by William Duke
The Seventh Floor – Photo by William Duke
Carlo, Philip The Night Stalker: The Life and Crimes of Richard Ramirez
Pinnacle True Crime
Rylah Juliet Bennett, Inside The ‘American Horror Story’ Hotel
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(1990) Breakout Productions
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Barragan, Bianca The Cecil Hotel, Curbed LA October 7, 2015