Two serial killers and 16 ghosts walk into a hotel ...

Welcome to Tell-Tale Crimes, and the 2018 Election issue of the Quaker Campus. Next week we will not be publishing an issue to give our lovely staff a well-earned break, as well as a fun Halloween. But what about a spooky story to suit the season? Since political crimes tend to be along the lines of espionage or assassination, which is usually not in good taste, I thought it would be best to tell you a Halloween story a week early. Please enjoy a look at one of the spookier places in Los Angeles.

Please be warned: this piece contains descriptions of violent deaths, suicide, assault, and murder.

Maggie Harvey


On the corner of 7th and Main in Los Angeles, California, squeezed between a number of bars, corner stores, and a hodgepodge of other run-down businesses, lies the Stay on Main. Once just a hotel, the Stay on Main now serves a variety of clientele ranging from those looking for a cheap hotel room, to European tourists looking for a youth hostel, to those who just use the single occupancy residence (SOR) rooms. Three floors of the building remain a hotel, while the rest of the building is for SORs and the youth hostel.

The Cecil’s hauntingly beautiful lobby now.  COURTESY OF  KCET

The Cecil’s hauntingly beautiful lobby now. COURTESY OF KCET

This may not sound like a place worth a story in a crime column. What exactly is scary about a building that is some sort of Frankenstein’s monster of residencies? Well, the Stay on Main may not have a sordid past, but it’s former title, The Cecil Hotel, does. The Cecil,  which occupied the same building as the Stay on Main, has a much more grim and gruesome history that has spread across Los Angeles like the blood in the elevator scene in The Shining. Even if you don’t know the story of The Cecil, you probably know the art  inspired by it, such as American Horror Story: Hotel. The Cecil has had at least 16 confirmed deaths by unnatural cause (suicide, homicide, or undetermined) over the course of its near-century-long history, as well as a connection to at least two known serial killers according to CNN. If this place doesn’t have ghosts, then I don’t know what does. For the sake of clarity, I will only refer to the building as The Cecil or The Cecil Hotel.

The Cecil Hotel was built in 1924 as a hotel for businessmen who were coming into Los Angeles. Beautifully constructed with a beaux arts lobby topped with high, vaulting ceilings, The Cecil actually earned the title of “historic-cultural monument” due to the historic significance of the architect’s, Loy Lester Smith, body of work. However, once the Great Depression hit, The Cecil turned into a transient hotel and gradually fell into disrepair. According to Richard Schave, the creator and tour guide for the “Hotel Horrors & Main Streety Vice” tour, The Cecil  “was just a place where people who were really down on their luck were going.”

This particular brand of guest, the ones who were on their last ropes with nowhere else to go, were probably the main contribution to The Cecil’s history. According to Buzzfeed Unsolved, the true crime and supernatural mystery web series that we all know and love, long time residents also called The Cecil, “The Suicide.” With 16 unnatural deaths over the course of nearly a hundred years, it would be impossible to cover every death to the extent it deserves. They include multiple poisonings, jumps off the building, and one count of someone slitting their own throat. In fact, in 1975 after an unidentified woman jumped from the twelfth floor to the roof of the second floor, The Cecil had become so well known for deaths that the next-door building sued The Cecil for negligence of their guests, according to crime and horror podcast And That’s Why We Drink.

One particularly odd, while still tragic, suicide, was the death of Pauline Otton on Oct. 12, 1962. Otton, 27,  had just been arguing with her estranged husband in their room. After her husband left the room to cool off, Otton went to the window of her room and jumped. Unfortunately, George Gianinni, 65, had been walking past The Cecil just as Otton fell. They collided as Otton hit the ground and both died on impact. There were no witnesses to the deaths so when police arrived on the scene they initially thought that Otton and Gianinni had jumped together. However, when examining the body, police discovered that Gianinni still had his hands in his pockets and his shoes were still on, which would not have been the case if he had jumped as well, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The deaths inside The Cecil take up a large part of its history, and the people who stayed there do as well. Two serial killers have been recorded staying at The Cecil. While neither of them killed anyone on the premises, they both terrorized LA with their sadistic crimes. One, which may be unknown to some readers, is Jack Unterweger. Unterweger was an Austrian journalist that was visiting LA to write a piece on, ironically, crime in LA. Schave claims, in a CNN article, that Unterweger could have been staying at The Cecil as an homage to the second serial killer who stayed at there, whom I’ll be discussing after. During his stay at The Cecil in 1991, the deaths of three prostitutes are attributed to Unterweger, though it is unclear if he ever was convicted for those specific deaths by the Austrian or American  government.

The second serial killer, whom Unterweger may have been paying homage to during his 1991 stay, is Richard Ramirez. Ramirez, also known as “The Night Stalker,” stayed at The Cecil in 1985 during part of his killing spree. Between 1984 – 85 Ramirez killed at least 13 people in the LA area by breaking into their homes, raping, and then killing them with whatever they had available. He chose his victims randomly and without reason, which was the scariest thing of all at the time —anyone could have been next. Ramirez even struck in Whittier in 1985, killing Vincent Zazzara and his wife, Maxine. According to And That’s Why We Drink, Ramirez stayed at The Cecil due to its “unmitigated chaos.” Ramirez would supposedly kill, dump his bloody clothes in the hotel trash bin, and then could walk through the building’s lobby either partially or completely naked without anyone batting an eye. With the growing number of odd or offbeat guests staying in the building, it wasn’t necessarily unusual to see a naked man in the lobby. Ramirez was caught by an angry mob in East LA after his picture had been released as the main suspect in “the Night Stalker” case. Talk to anyone who lived in that area in 1985, and they probably have a story about it.

One of the most famous unsolved murders in LA history may have ties to The Cecil as well. On Jan. 15, 1947, a body was discovered by a mother and child who were out for a morning walk. According to the FBI, the body was posed in such a way that the mother initially thought it was a mannequin. It was not, in fact, a mannequin (it rarely is a mannequin). What the pair had found was the body of Elizabeth Short, sliced cleanly in half, without a drop of blood around her. She was a Hollywood hopeful who had last been seen on Jan. 9 of that same month being dropped off at the Biltmore Hotel. The press took hold of this gruesome murder of a beautiful woman and sensationalized it, and Short began to be known as the Black Dahlia. In the original LAPD flyer that was sent out, Short was described as someone who “readily [made]  friends with both sexes and frequented cocktail bars and nightspots.”  Because there was a lack of blood at the scene, police believed that Short was killed elsewhere. I have yet to find a credible source to back this up, but in the spirit of Halloween, here’s a spooky rumor that has spread around the true crime community: in the days before her death, Short was supposedly seen at The Cecil Hotel bar. While still probably just a rumour, it is an entirely plausible one when you consider her penchant for visiting night spots and cocktail bars, as well as the Biltmore being within walking distance from The Cecil. Short’s murder remains, and probably will stay, unsolved.

Possibly the strangest death at The Cecil was in 2013. The decedent, Elisa Lam, was a Canadian tourist visiting LA to see the sights. According to Buzzfeed Unsolved, Lam had been housed in a shared hostel style room once she checked in. But after complaints from her roommates of odd behavior, she was moved to a single room where she stayed by herself. She was last seen Jan. 26, 2013. On Feb. 19, only a couple weeks later, the water tanks on top of The Cecil were inspected after residents complained of water pressure issues as well as water coming out a dark brown or black color when the taps were initially turned on. Inside the water tanks workers found Lam’s decomposing body, along with her clothes floating next to her. While a strange death, the case went viral due to released security footage of Lam in one of the hotel elevators — the last time she was observed alive. Lam exhibits odd, and even scary, behavior. She moves in and out of the elevator repeatedly, pressing multiple buttons, and waving her hands around as if she is talking to someone down the hallway. At one point she presses her back up against the interior elevator wall as if she’s hiding from someone. The video has cited theories of a mental break or possible murder.  Lam did have bipolar disorder, so the most accepted theory is that during a manic episode she made her way to the water tanks and let herself in. Her autopsy did not show any signs of trauma, and her toxicology report came back negative, but the roof of The Cecil is hard to get to. There is a door that remains locked that allows roof access, and the water tower has a tall ladder as well as a heavy latch that Lam would have had to maneuver. The death remains mysterious and widely speculative, with some even considering the idea that the ghosts of The Cecil may have led Lam to her death.

With death, and lots of it, comes ghosts, and with ghosts come hauntings. We all have a story, or know a friend with a story, about the time that their book flew off their bookcase or an object was in a different place than they left it, but this is beyond a simple house haunting. The Cecil has its fair share of ghosts to go around.

The strongest piece of evidence indicating that The Cecil is haunted is a photo that made the news in 2014. According to ABC7, a Riverside boy named Koston Alderete noticed a window from the outside of The Cecil. He claims that he got a creepy feeling, like the window was staring at him, so he took a photo of it. When the picture came out Alderete could see a transparent figure standing on the ledge of the window as if about to jump, or as if they were standing on a balcony that no longer existed. Alderete told ABC7 that the photo had already “cost him some sleep and caused him to have a nightmare.” Other accounts of hauntings at the hotel are less documented, and passed around on internet forums and paranormal podcasts like the stories we tell around the fire during summer camp. But they are just as creepy as Alderete photo. Collected by the hosts of And That’s Why We Drink, here is a list of the accounts of hauntings at The Cecil Hotel:

Some people say that the Black Dahlia can be seen at the hotel bar, sipping on a drink alone. After they see her, people’s drinks inexplicably fall or spill, though the effect of the Black Dahlia’s ghost could just be people trying to cover up their drunkenness. The hotel is also plagued by shadow figures, or shadows of people that do not seem to have a source. People are afraid to go into the basement because of the shadow people that chase them, and some guests have claimed to see shadow figures in their rooms out  of the corner of their eye. Guests are sometimes tormented while they sleep; there are accounts of bed sheets being tugged at, being sat on by an unseen person, something growling into a sleeping guest’s ear, as well as multiple accounts of guests dreaming of a shadowy creature, and, once they wake up, they see a figure before it quickly disappears. One spirit has a penchant for hugging people while they are sleeping; however, the spirit then escalates to forced tickling. One guest recalled the spirit holding down her foot so she could not move, and then tickling her until it felt like it would scratch her skin off. Guests have entered their rooms to see someone sleeping in their bed, but when they go to remove the blanket, it collapses with no one ever underneath. The bathrooms are just as haunted as the bedrooms are. There are accounts of faucets and showers being turned on when no one is using them, and then when people go to check, they are turned off before anyone arrives. Once the person begins to leave, the faucet turns back on, as if someone is playing a trick. Some guests hear a person singing or humming, sometimes in the shower when there is not anyone in there. Guests can hear shrieking coming from the rooms where people died, and sounds coming from rooms that should be vacant. Doors and windows can be heard opening, especially the roof access door that Elisa Lam used to get to the water tanks. Hotel staff members have recounted cleaning a room in its entirety, and, after looking away, they turn back to find the room in shambles. Possibly most terrifying of all, at nightime you can hear screams coming from outside as if someone is falling from the top of the building.

The deaths at The Cecil Hotel have made it infamous in the history of LA. Walking its halls could inspire fear in even the most intrepid horror lover. and it has certainly earned its title as one of the most haunted hotels in California. However, where the deaths have evidence to look back on, it is nearly impossible to find quantifiable evidence on ghosts, besides first hand accounts. I assume that this hard to find evidence is what inspires shows like Buzzfeed Unsolved, Ghost Hunters, or Scariest Places On Earth. All these people spend their lives staying in haunted places looking for the proof of ghosts that they are searching for. Perhaps you don’t believe that The Cecil is haunted though. Maybe all these people are just making up the ghost stories and the bad energy that they feel. Maybe the 16 deaths and two documented serial killers left no lasting spiritual effect on the building. That’s entirely possible. So, if we follow the examples of the paranormal investigators of our day, I guess there’s only one way to find out if the stories are true.

Will you check in to The Cecil Hotel?