The Unsolved Murder of Karina Holmer

“I’ve got the old man’s car,
I’ve got a jazz guitar,
I’ve got a tab at Zanzibar,
Tonight that’s where I’ll be…”

In 1996 I was only about five years old. It was the year that the first Pokemon game came out, and the Nintendo 64 was released. Dolly the sheep was the first successful mammal clone, and Bill Clinton would secure his second term in office. In Texas, the 9 year old namesake of the Amber Alert was murdered.

In 1996 Karina Holmer thought she was living a dream. The young woman from a small village in Sweden had always had big dreams, and after winning the lottery, she used her winnings to move to America for a summer. The city life, night clubs, new kinds of people and places, a cultural explosion; Karina was ready for an adventure. Tragically, what she found was a nightmare.

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Karina decided that the best way to plan her trip was to become an Au Pair, a sort of nanny to families who would offer boarding and a stipend in return. Most Au Pair’s worked through agency’s which trained the women in childcare, secured visas, and screened employers. However Karina went a different route. She arrived in the US with no visa and fake ID in March.

She began working for a wealthy artist couple living in Dover Massachusetts. Frank Rapp was a commercial photographer, and his wife Susan was a painter. Frank was well off enough that he could afford a studio in the Fort Point neighborhood of Boston. During the week Karina took care of the Rapp children and chores, but on the weekends she was free to travel into the city to party, and spend the nights at Frank’s studio. Friday and Saturday nights Karina would be downtown drinking and dancing until the wee hours of the morning. Friends and family back home in Sweden thought she was having the time of her life. The only indication otherwise was her sudden announcement to family that she would be cutting her American adventure short, and cryptic letter written to a friend in May; “Something terrible has happened. I’ll reveal more when I get home.” Her family believed Karina was returning home because she had tired of housework. Only her friend knew that something else was troubling Karina. But no one will ever know just what it was.

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A photo taken at Zanzibar in 1996

On June 21st Karina went out to a popular club at Boylston Place called Zanzibar. It was a prime hangout for young foreigners with fake IDs. She was seen several times by friends throughout the night, each time chronologically more intoxicated. Before close she was briefly passed out in the club bathroom, and was escorted out by a bouncer after the club cut her off. In the alley outside, Karina struck up a conversation with a local homeless man, whom she happily danced with. Then she was gone.

The next few hours became a hazy mix of possible sightings, as authorities would later try to track her journey. One friend claimed to have seen Karina get into a car with a group of men. Another said Karina had told them she was heading to a private party. Someone swore they saw her walking down Tremont Street in the twilight before dawn. Wherever Karina went that night, we know where she ended up. Her torso was found in a dumpster behind 1901 Boylston Street, sawed in half above the hip, wrapped in trash bags. It was only discovered because a man had ripped the bag while rummaging for cans on Sunday morning.

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The crime scene as it was investigated.

Karina’s body was naked and washed clean, even her makeup had been scrubbed off (perhaps an attempt to get rid of evidence). He neck showed signs of strangulation, and she had been neatly sawed in half with something like a circular saw, a straight cut other than a hiccup at her hipbone. That kind of cut would have been fairly easy; one would only have to cut through one bone, the spine. Her lower half was never recovered, and police considered the possibility it had been destroyed to hide evidence of a sexual crime or secret pregnancy. The only evidence left by the suspect was a single partial fingerprint inside the trashbag, and no matches were ever found.

Detective Tommy O’Leary immediately began investigating, talking to everyone and anyone Karina may have been with that night. It wasn’t long before he would realize it would be a case like no other, and it would haunt him forever.

One of O’Leary’s first leads came in the form of a bizarre subject, one of the last people to see Karina alive. Herb Whitten became known as “the man with the dog” after several people told the police they had seen Karina talking to a man who wore matching Superman shirts with his Great Pyrenees. Whitten told police that he enjoyed the attention that he got from women while he walked in the city, but that he knew nothing about Karina. He also had a good alibi: Whitten had been pulled over for speeding on his way home to Andover that night. It simply didn’t seem possible he would have had the time to have already dismembered a body and dumped it near Fenway. Whether he was involved or not Whitten may have taken the truth to his grave. He committed suicide only about a year later.

Excluding Whitten as a suspect, the police next began to look at Karina’s employer with more scrutiny. The rumor from other Au Pairs was that Frank was a sleazy guy, a “creep”. Neither Frank or his wife could provide a verifiable alibi for where they had been the night Karina was murdered, and both were increasingly hostile and uncooperative toward police. Even more suspiciously, Dover police were called to the Rapp residence for a completely different reason the following Monday. There was a fire in the dumpster on the property shared by Frank and neighbors. Boston police worked with Dover to collect samples from the charred rubbish, but none tested positive for blood or human remains. Perhaps it was just another of many strange coincidences.

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The green line is Boylston Street

It’s been over 20 years since Karina was murdered, and her case has long gone cold.

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What Happened to Elisa Lam?

 

(Updated August 2016 with new information)

This past winter (2014), around the one year anniversary of her death, I discovered the mysterious case of Elisa Lam, and became a bit obsessed (to say the least). First I was drawn in by the creepy, seemingly supernatural events surrounding her demise. But once I learned more I simply became desperate to, in some small way, help Elisa. To share her story…to spread awareness…to remember her. I couldn’t believe how passionately I felt about a woman I had never met; and it broke my heart to know I never would.

I feel like Elisa and I could have been friends. She was sweet, idealistic, and full of love.

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Elisa was a 21 year old student from Canada who was visiting Los Angeles as a tourist in the winter of 2013. She loved fashion, Harry Potter, and Ryan Gosling (it is speculated she was in LA trying to catch a glimpse of the location of a movie he had filmed in the area). She also suffered from bouts of mental illness including depression and bipolar, but both were said to have been managed with medication (Wellbutrin, Lamictal, Seroquel, and Effexor) by her loved ones.

In January of 2013 she was staying in the Cecil Hotel, near Skid Row, alone.

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The Cecil Hotel, now rebranded and called Stay on Main, has a long and sordid past, to the point that it influenced American Horror Story: Hotel. Since being built in the 1920’s, at least three murders have been committed there, as well as an undisclosed number of suicides (particularly jumpers). Some of the jumpers even struck and killed pedestrians on the street below. The hotel was so infamous in the 60’s it was nicknamed “The Suicide”. In 1947 the Black Dahlia Elizabeth Short was allegedly seen at the Cecil’s bar before her murder. In the 80’s the Night Stalker Richard Ramirez lived for a time in the Cecil. In the 90’s another murderer, Jack Unterweger, called the Cecil home.

According to Cecil Hotel statements, Elisa originally rented a shared, hostel-type room on the fifth floor. However after complaints from her roommates about “odd” behavior, she was moved to a private room on the same floor on January 31st.

Elisa Lam was last seen on the night of the 31st at the Cecil on an elevator camera. The Police did a light search of the hotel but found nothing, even bringing search dogs up on the hotel’s roof. There was no evidence of her whereabouts found.

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In February guests of the Cecil Hotel began to complain about their water pressure, as well as its smell and taste, and on the 19th a maintenance worker climbed up a ten foot tall rooftop water cistern. Inside he found the naked and decomposing remains of Elisa Lam. The worker said that the hatch of the tank, which did not have a lock, was left open. Elisa was floating face up, about a foot below the hatch opening. It cannot be explained why police and search canines did not hit on or check the tanks, or why there was not some noticeable odor from the open hatch.

Elisa’s clothes were found in the tank as well, and were consistent with what she was wearing in the last known footage of her. There was trace amounts of ‘sediment’ on her clothes, as well as hair or fibers. Neither were expounded upon further.

An autopsy revealed no illegal drugs and negligible amounts of  alcohol in her system (or at least none that could be detected, considering the fact her body had been submerged in a water tank for weeks). Trace amounts of her prescription medications were found, although the amounts indicated a possibility that she hadn’t taken the proper amount. Though her death was initially labeled as unable to be determined on her autopsy report, the form was later edited to the final ruling of “accidental drowning” with her bipolar listed as a “possible contributor”.

One of the most controversial pieces of evidence is the surveillance tape from the night she went missing (and most likely died). There has been an incredible amount of speculation about what exactly is happening in the tape, which can be viewed here:

Many people are initially frightened and disturbed by the footage. Some suggest there is something paranormal occurring , that Elisa is talking to something not on camera, and the elevator seems to be acting strangely (doors not shutting…a ghost?). A theory that Elisa may have been sleepwalking circled the web for some time as well.

I would like to take a moment to examine those theories while adding some more info about what can really be garnered from the strange video. First off, the elevator panel looks like this :

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And after many people analyzed the video obsessively for a long time, a consensus was reached that Elisa did not press all the buttons or random ones, she pressed a specific sequence: 14, 10, 7, 4, M, B, and Hold Door. The first button pressed, 14, does not light up, indicating that was the floor she was on. The elevator doors do not close because she pressed the hold door button. Someone went to the Cecil to investigate and found the hold button keeps the elevator for an unusually long two minutes, so that mystery at least is solved.

Youtuber Cody Fry made a video  outlining their belief that the elevator video has actually been edited, slowing it considerably as well as inexplicably cutting out nearly a minute of time. Why this edited video was released and not the original has never been discussed by police or the Cecil. Some have speculated that the original may have contained key information such as a second person.

But onto the next obvious question, why did she press those buttons?

Elisa was staying on the 5th floor, so was up on the 14th for some other reason. The 14th floor) technically the 13th as there is no ’13th floor’) is an apartment floor, not a hotel floor, and is one floor down from the roof, which is easily accessible to anyone by the fire escape (not behind security doors like in news reports). Some have suggested that pressing multiple buttons is a suggested way to escape someone unwanted following you, as they cannot track what floor you get off on, and in the beginning of the video Elisa does seem to be frantically running from someone.

Yet, according to a body language analyst, Elisa is not showing signs of fear or distress, but playful anxiety, as if she is actually playing some sort of hide and seek game.

Here is a floorplan for a better idea of the halls outside the elevator:

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Elisa can be seen in the video looking down the halls outside, as well as apparently looking at/adjusting herself in a mirror across from the elevator. It seems as if she may be waiting for someone. When interviewed, no one in the hotel could remember seeing Elisa with anyone else at any point.

The police used the elevator video to ID Elisa, despite it being blurry and dubious at best. She had been staying at the hotel for days and there surely would have been better, clearer frontal shots. Was this one used solely because it was the last known footage of her? Was she acting strangely in any other videos? Visitors to the hotel in the years since her death have confirmed the existence of many other cameras in the Cecil.

Redditor aj0219 commented on one thread about the alarming “synchronicity” of this case. The first of these is the bizarre coincidence of a bad outbreak of Tuberculosis which hit Skid Row near the Cecil around the time of her death. The name of the test used to determine if a patient has TB is called LAM-ELISA.

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The next example is the cases striking resemblance to a Japanese film called “Dark Water”(2002) which was about a body found in a rooftop water tank and the spirit of that girl haunting an apartment building. It also involved tenants who drank said water, and themes involving the  haunted apartment elevator. There was a 2005 American remake, which is important in that the character names relate to the case. The mother (played by Jennifer Connelly, is named Dahlia. Her daughter is Cecilia. Again, this movie came out in 2005.

The tank in the movie:

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The tanks in the Elisa Lam case:

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Also at one point in the 2002 film the main character also wears an eerily familiar outfit….

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What this could all mean, if anything, evades me.

There is one conspiracy theory that suggests Elisa never existed or was purposefully murdered so that the name LAM-ELISA would be hard to search for/obscure besides the bizarre case, for nefarious government cover-up reasons. Others think she was murdered by people trying to copy the plot of the horror film. Many are more convinced that Elisa was murdered by someone of importance, and the LAPD covered up her death.

By now you might be thinking this is just too weird. Honestly these are some of the tamest of conspiracy theories. Others involve the Illuminati, Government cloaking technology, a Cult founded by Aliester Crowley, and of course Aliens.

Coming back to what we actually know, Elisa had a tumblr on which she blogged often about her feelings and activities. She mentions her mental trouble frequently, but also seems to have hope for the future, talking about her future grandkids and such.

“But I am so very full of…I suppose the term would be, as Dumblydore says, love

because last night was evidence that I do have amazing beautiful things in my life 

and even though everyone is busy and going off doing great things,

they do care about me.

I’m not a profession depressed person. I am so much more than that and these people are my reminders that I am very lucky. Life is long and difficult and people will always be stupid and complain

but it is worth it so long as you have special moments. There will be lots of these moments in the future and there have been a lot in the past. So what if everything is shit and all the plans have gone to hell. If I ask for help, someone might even be willing to spare a hand. 

Thank you friends, family and tumblr. The world is just awesome.”

She also shows herself as being an idealistic and naive person as well though, and would sometimes go out to clubs and meet men:

”After all, I like my home comforts and every now and then I do something entirely impulsive and reckless like tell a guy I just met I like him…….I do like people watching at the hostel.”

(It should be noted to those not familiar with Tumblr that her blog had posts queued up to post in the months after her death. This is common among bloggers going for a consisten aesthetic and amount of posts. There is nothing suspicious or bizarre about her Tumblr.)

Elisa’s parents filed a lawsuit against the Cecil Hotel, alleging that it was an unsafe environment and the easily accessible roof and unlocked water tanks were essentially an accident waiting to happen. Their lawyer stated that the family truly believes that Elisa did in fact have a psychotic episode that somehow ultimately led to her ending up in the water tank. Further evidence of this are a postcard Elisa sent to a family member sometime during her trip, the contents which though not publicized, gave some cause for alarm about her mental health. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2015 by Judge Howard Halm, who felt the hotel could not have anticipated such a bizarre accident.

To sum everything up, Elisa Lam apparently suffered from a psychotic episode while staying at the Cecil, a portion of which was caught on hotel camera. She then went up to the roof and crawled into a water tank where she died. Lack of mention of bruising or cuts to her hands in the autopsy indicates that she likely did not struggle in the tank (ie banging for help or trying to claw out to escape). It can therefore be determined that if this is the true sequence of events, Elisa did not suffer or struggle, and if she was conscious when in the tank, she drowned quickly. I have not been able to find any statements about Elisa’s swimming ability, but she would have been in at least 6 feet of water which while not much would still have been over her head.

If Elisa was capable of swimming, why she did not try to get back out of the tank, which according the maintenance worker was open and only a foot above her, eludes me.

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The fact is, we will probably never know exactly what happened to Elisa Lam. All we can know is that a beautiful life was cut tragically short.