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


It’s not difficult to conjure up a dark aura around the hotel, and a lot of media reports have done just that.

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

Despite what happened at the Cecil, without Lam’s disappearance there would be no documentary and probably very little interest in the hotel today. The web experts, none of whom have met her, profess their love and affection for her. She and the series flip over the elevator video like it was the Dead Sea Scrolls. We keep watching Lam press a series of elevator buttons and push himself into a corner of the elevator, then get out and make some strange hand movements. Surely it all has to mean something.

Or maybe not. And here you either stop reading (assuming you haven’t Googled the case yet) or move on to the not terribly mystical conclusion. In the end, the Cecil was a crime scene. Multiple. But it appears that the Lam case was nothing criminal, which according to investigators was a sad accident.

When asked how he reconciles his high-minded ideals with the precepts of the genre of real crime, Berlinger pointed out that “Cecil” deals with issues that go beyond the corpse, including cyberbullying, homelessness and mental illness. But he also knows that true crime viewers tune into the more glaring details, and sometimes that gives him a break.

“I wonder if, God forbid, something happened to me or my family, I want someone to tell this story?” he said in a follow-up email. “To be completely honest, I would only want this if the purpose of telling this story was greater than ‘entertainment’.”



Robert Dunfee