(TMU Op-Ed) — Back in 2013, I became obsessed with a true-crime case that was very popular online. And very strange. You might be familiar with it.
A surveillance recording of a young woman in a red hoodie—who can be seen acting bizarrely, almost as if she is hiding from someone, in an elevator inside the infamous Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles—went viral on YouTube.
That same young woman, 21-year-old Chinese-Canadian tourist Elisa Lam, was found nearly two weeks later in one of the hotel’s rooftop water tanks. Her naked body was removed with relative difficulty by firefighters, who had to cut into the side of the cistern with lasers to extract the corpse.
The conditions were extremely suspicious. Though no one could quite explain how Elisa would have ended up on the alarm-triggered roof in the first place, much less drowning naked in a difficult-to-access water tank, LAPD detectives closed the case without criminal charges. They concluded there was no foul play and that Elisa had accidentally drowned due to complications resulting from bipolar disorder.
I subsequently spent five years researching this tragic, extraordinarily eerie, one-of-a-kind case and wrote a book, GONE AT MIDNIGHT: The Mysterious Death of Elisa Lam.
The case had personal resonance for me early on. I read Elisa’s voluminous online writings, which detailed her battle with severe depression and bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder—which drastically increases suicide rates—had taken the life of my aunt and threatened the lives of several close friends; and depression had been an ongoing battle in my own adult life.
The spectacle of seeing millions of people online trying to divine whether Elisa’s death was the result of hypomania, human predation, or some paranormal demon struck me as particularly apropos of our current Internet-mediated reality.
In the process of investigating the case, I turned up new information that will interest readers and web sleuths on a number of levels.
People who aren’t particularly familiar with the case will be introduced to the eerie Cecil Hotel via a biography that explains why it’s so incredibly synchronistic that this tragedy played out at this location. An extensive history of the Cecil Hotel (renamed Stay On Main) reveals an almost unbelievable number of unexplained deaths, suicides, and murders starting in the 1930s and continuing to the present day.
Incredibly, a manager claimed on camera that someone has died in all 600+ rooms of the hotel.
A former tenant revealed to me that employees had used their master keys to enter guest rooms and sexually assault women. At least two different prolific serial killers, Richard Ramirez (the “Night Stalker”) and Jack Unterweger, lived on the upper floors of the Cecil (Ramirez on the same floor where Elisa was recorded) during their respective murder sprees.
There’s a reason why tenants called it “The Suicide Hotel.” Main Street pedestrians have periodically glimpsed bodies of “jumpers,” the many souls who jumped to their deaths from the upper floors. One had a nervous breakdown upon the ghoulish sight of a woman strung up in the cable lines and had to be admitted to a hospital; another was actually killed by a suicidal Cecil tenant who landed on his head.
Many insist to this day that a resident evil looms within the very walls of the building. After staying there by myself twice during my research, I can attest that it’s a lodging experience you will never forget (though you will want to).
People who are familiar with the case, and who have been waiting for some answers, will be relieved to know this book contains exclusive new interviews and evidence that has not (yet) been leaked online. In the book, I spend a great deal of time going over the history of Cecil Hotel’s internal corruption, as well as recent LAPD scandals, to lay the foundations for why I’m convinced there’s been a criminal coverup in this case.
I also take great pains to state why I don’t view mental illness and foul play as mutually exclusive. In fact, I spend several chapters discussing the multitude of neurological, genetic, and psycho-social factors that must be addressed before someone can even intelligently discuss mental illness, much less try to approximate what was going on in Elisa Lam’s head on January 31st, 2013.
In other words, there may be multiple colliding realities of what was going on that night.
The new evidence I gathered includes: eyewitness testimony regarding the discovery of Elisa’s belongings; new forensic analysis of the autopsy by an independent coroner that contradicts the LA Coroner’s Office stated cause of death; a payment made by the Cecil Hotel to one of the employees who discovered Elisa’s body, who likely perjured himself in a civil deposition and subsequently left the country with his family; and an LAPD informant who has firsthand knowledge of a possible quid pro quo between Cecil Hotel executives and the LAPD. And more.
I hope to catch the notice of the California Attorney General because this case desperately needs an independent audit.
I went into the writing of this book wanting to counter the stigmatization of mental illness in today’s society. Ultimately, I encountered a police department willing to use a victim’s mental illness to scapegoat a botched investigation.
GONE AT MIDNIGHT: The Mysterious Death of Elisa Lam will be released by Kensington Books (Citadel) on February 25th, 2020. You can pre-order a copy now. You can also enter a Goodreads giveaway to win a free copy. For updates, follow me on Twitter @OverTheMoonSF.
UN Says Trump Violated International Law With Pardons for Blackwater War Criminals
A United Nations panel has strongly denounced U.S. President Donald Trump’s pardons for several former Blackwater mercenaries and convicted war criminals that were found guilty of massacring over a dozen civilians in Baghdad.
The U.N. working group on the use of mercenaries released a statement Wednesday condemning the White House decision to pardon the four killers as an offense to basic justice and insult to the memory of over a dozen people killed in the 2007 massacre, reports Reuters. The panel also sharply condemned the move as a violation of U.S. obligations to international law.
“Pardoning the Blackwater contractors is an affront to justice and to the victims of the Nisour Square massacre and their families,” said panel chair Jelena Aparac.
“These pardons violate U.S. obligations under international law and more broadly undermine humanitarian law and human rights at a global level,” she added.
The four men, all of whom were American, were involved in the indiscriminate killing of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians, when the mercenaries opened fire during busy traffic at the Baghdad square. Twenty additional civilians were injured. Nicholas Slatten was convicted of first-degree murder while Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty and Paul Slough were each convicted of voluntary and attempted manslaughter.
The four men were employed by the private security firm Blackwater which was owned by security contractor Erik Prince, the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Prince has reportedly served as an informal adviser to the White House while also helping to orchestrate spying efforts to infiltrate campaigns by political and labor groups considered hostile to Trump, the New York Times reported earlier this year.
The four mercenaries were included in a wave of controversial pre-Christmas pardons announced by the Trump administration that critics derided as corrupt and immoral.
“While U.S. Army contractors convicted of massacring civilians in Iraq are pardoned, the man who exposed such crimes against humanity, [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange, rots in Britain’s Guantanamo,” tweeted Greek economist and parliamentarian Yanis Varoufakis.
The pardons for the former Blackwater mercenaries, in particular, were sharply criticized by Gen. David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the two top American officials in charge of U.S. policy in Iraq at the time of the 2007 massacre, who called the move “hugely damaging, an action that tells the world that Americans abroad can commit the most heinous crimes with impunity” in a joint statement.
The U.N. working group’s chair also said that the pardons send the signal that private security contractors would essentially give them the green light to “operate with impunity in armed conflicts” as states increasingly rely on the firms to circumvent their obligations under humanitarian law.
In recent years, military contractors have increasingly been deployed in sensitive conflict zones by companies from the U.S., U.K., Russia, South Africa and other countries.
Blackwater, which has since been renamed as Academi, earned worldwide notoriety for the 2007 massacre, after which the company was stripped of its license to operate in Iraq by the country’s government.
Documents released by WikiLeaks have also highlighted major human rights abuses, including the murder of civilians, by private security services such as Blackwater throughout the Iraq War.
Trophy Hunters Killed 1.7 Million Animals Over the Past Decade – Including Endangered Species
The bloodthirsty “sport” of trophy hunting managed to kill one animal every three minutes over the past decades, according to a devastating new exposé of the industry.
Over 1.7 million animals – including elephants, lions, and rhinos – have been slaughtered by trophy hunters, with the wealthiest among them paying top dollar to kill rare and endangered creatures hovering at the brink of extinction.
The grim data underscores the ties between an industry that rakes in over $400 million per year and the global elites thirsty for a chance to kill the rare animals that conservationists have tirelessly worked to rescue.
The new book, entitled Trophy Leaks: Top Hunters and Industry Secrets, was written by Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting (CBTH) founder Eduardo Gonçalves, and exposes the shocking scale of an industry that disingenuously claims that it is pursuing the aim of conservation.
Instead, the book reveals that trophy hunters have killed some “100 endangered animals” every day in 2018. The book, which also relies on analysis by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, shows that the life of an animal is taken for sport every three minutes in a blatantly irresponsible contribution to a loss of biodiversity that has seen the global rate of species extinction accelerate to unprecedented levels in recent decades.
For this reason, Gonçalves aptly characterizes the trophy hunting trade as an extinction industry that banks on the wholesale slaughter of creatures.
“An estimated 1.7 million animals were shot by trophy hunters over the past decade – the equivalent of almost 500 animals a day, or one every 3 minutes,” Gonçalves writes.
The book also reveals how shills for the game-hunting industry have run high-profile disinformation campaigns on social media to counter the efforts of the U.K. government to outlaw imports linked to trophy hunters. About £600,000 (USD $800,000) was used to prop up sock puppet accounts on Facebook and Twitter that purported to be Africans opposed to Boris Johnson’s pledge to ban trophy imports to Britain.
According to the book, nearly 800 hunters have won the “African Big 5” prize from the industry, which rewards those who have slain at least one buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion, and black or white rhino.
Hunting lobbyists with the Safari Club International (SCI) industry association have also awarded special prizes to hunters who have killed over 80 different African species.
Hunting advocates have also allegedly pledged over $2 million to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in hopes of seeing a generous return on investments under his administration.
While Trump has previously denounced trophy hunting as a “horror show,” his two sons are prominent trophy hunters and the Humane Society of the United States has denounced his administration for catering to wealthy trophy hunters and ignoring the pleas of conservationists to ban the import of slain animal “trophies.”
“Future generations will look back aghast at how we allowed the world’s most endangered species to be gunned down in their droves by adrenaline junkies in pursuit of grinning selfies and gruesome souvenirs,” Gonçalves told the Daily Mail.
“Trophy-hunting isn’t about a handful of sick individuals – it is about a huge global industry which wields extraordinary power and manipulates governments.”
Texas Dad Beaten, Maced, Taken to Jail for Filming Cops Arrest His Son for ‘Wide Right Turn’
As 2020 draws to a close, the year is likely to go down in history as a time when people across the United States finally decided to take a stand against systemic police brutality and widespread human rights abuses at the hands of law enforcement. Despite the protests, however, the widespread abuse of U.S. residents under color of authority is showing few signs of disappearing.
And in one especially egregious recent incident, a Texas police officer can be seen arresting a motorist for allegedly making too wide a right turn. The officer then proceeds to call for backup, after which the officers pepper-spray the driver and then beat the man’s father for lawfully filming the arrest.
The North Texas man is now suing two officers with the Keller Police Department for the disturbing incident, which occurred on Aug. 15 and has already led to the police chief disciplining the offending officer and apologizing to the family.
“It’s undeniable that their conduct was horrible,” Scott Palmer, one of the lawyers suing Keller PD, told New York Times. “They’re supposed to preserve and protect, and they caused havoc and mayhem.”
Dillon Puente, 22, was on his way to his grandmother’s home when he was pulled over for making a wide right turn. In police bodycam footage, Sergeant Blake Shimanek can be seen requesting that Dillon exit the car before he placed him in handcuffs.
In a police report reviewed by WFAA, Shimanek claimed that he arrested Puente for the mere traffic infraction out of fears for his own safety.
After Dillon was arrested, his father Marco Puente arrived at the scene to video record the arrest.
“He was ticketed and taken to jail for a wide right turn,” Marco later recounted.
Marco parked his truck in the lane adjacent to his son before Shimanek sharply warned him to move his vehicle, warning that he could be arrested for obstructing the roadway. Marco quickly complied before returning to record the arrest with his phone from the sidewalk across the road.
“The officer didn’t like me being there recording anything,” Marco said.
At that point, Shimanek ordered Officer Ankit Tomer to place Marco under arrest for filming the scene, which was well within his rights.
“Put your phone down,” Tomer said in footage captured by his bodycam. “Put your hands behind your head.”
“This guy is arresting me for just standing here,” Marco said.
It was at that point that Tomer escalated the situation by initiating force against Marco, an innocent civilian who was simply watching out for his son.
“They tried to take me down and pepper spray me, and it was a fiasco,” Marco said.
In the video, the officers can be seen tackling Marco to the ground and repeatedly spraying him with mace before placing him, too, in handcuffs. The father-son pair were then detained and hauled to the local jail.
However, Dillon Puente was ultimately only given a minor citation for the initial wide turn. Marco wasn’t charged with any crime, and he was quickly released.
Two days after the incident, the Keller police chief himself met with Marco to apologize for the conduct of his officers. Shimanek was also demoted from sergeant to officer for his role in the unnerving altercation.
In the lawsuit against the two officers, Keller PD leadership are quoted as calling the use of force and arrest of Marco Puente entirely “inappropriate.”
Regardless of the police department’s apologies, the lawsuit is being filed as a matter of ensuring basic accountability.
“Marco is not a criminal. This is a man, a concerned father, and if this can happen to him, it can happen to anyone,” Marco’s attorney Scott Palmer said. “These officers knew better. I believe they were trained better, but why did they not execute better? I don’t know.”
Shimanek also has a history of misconduct, including a 2016 incident where he unlawfully entered a home without a search warrant and other incidents.
“It’s disturbing to know that these are the people we are entrusting with providing safety in the community and they are abusing that power,” said James Roberts, an attorney who works with Palmer’s law firm. “I know that they knew better. I know that they knew what they were doing was wrong, yet they still did it.”
The Puente family is still disturbed by the incident, months after it transpired. And while Marco recognizes that the apology was a “nice” gesture, further accountability is required.
“This is going on everywhere,” Puente said about police brutality. “If people keep on brushing it under a rug, it’s going to keep happening.”
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