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In ‘Crime Scene,’ Joe Berlinger Investigates True-Crime Obsession


It’s not hard to summon a dark aura around the hotel, and many media accounts have done just that.

“It’s been shown as a really dark place, with Richard Ramirez having been there and of course Elisa Lam,” said Amy Price, the hotel general manager from 2007 to 2017, in a recent phone interview. She also appears in the series. “But I thought how they presented everything was authentic and very fair.”

For all that has happened at the Cecil, without Lam’s disappearance there would be no documentary, and probably very little interest in the hotel today. The web sleuths, none of whom have met her, profess their love and affection for her. They, and the series, pore over the elevator video as if it were the Dead Sea Scrolls. We watch, over and over again, as Lam punches a row of elevator buttons and squishes herself into a corner of the elevator, then exits and makes some odd hand gestures. Surely this must all mean something.

Or, maybe not. And here’s where you either stop reading (assuming you haven’t already Googled the case) or continue on to the not-terribly-mystical conclusion. In the end, yes, the Cecil was a crime scene. Many times over. But it appears there was nothing criminal about the Lam case, which was, according to investigators, a sad accident.

Asked how he reconciles his more high-minded ideals with the true-crime genre’s imperative to entertain, Berlinger pointed to the fact that “Cecil” tackles subjects that go beyond the corpse at its core, including cyberbullying, homelessness and mental illness. But he also knows true-crime viewers are tuning in for the more lurid details, and sometimes that gives him pause.

“I do ask myself, if, God forbid, something happened to me or my family, would I want someone to tell that story?” he said in a follow-up email. “If I’m being totally honest, I would only want that if the telling of that story had a larger purpose than just ‘entertainment.’”


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