American Horror Story's Hotel: The Truth Is Scarier

  • by: Alan Duke

American Horror Story's 5th season -- titled "Hotel" -- is based on a reality that is stranger than fiction. Tourists are lured into a downtown Los Angeles hotel believing they'll be staying in luxury and near popular tourist attractions. The truth is the hotel is near Skid Row, not Hollywood, and many of them rooms are occupied by the city's poorest residents renting by the week.

Hotel Cortez is a fictional place, but based on the very real hotel until recently known as The Cecil. You likely saw news accounts of The Cecil after the corpse of a Canadian woman was found floating in a water cistern on the roof in February 2013. Elisa Lam's body had been decaying inside the hotel's water supply for weeks before the grisly discovery.

Investigators later ruled her death an accidental drowning, without explaining how the young woman ended up on the top of The Cecil and inside the water tank.

For decades before Lam's death, The Cecil was the scene of many notorious crimes and deaths.

"It's the place where serial killers stay," Los Angeles tour guide Richard Schave said. He conducts a "true crime and oddities" tour called "Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice."

The most famous were serial killers Richard Ramirez and Jack Unterweger.
Ramirez, known as the "Nightstalker," died in 2013 on California's death row while awaiting execution, but in 1985 he was living on the Cecil's top floor in a $14 a night room, Cooper said.

The Cecil, filled then with hundreds of transients living in the cheap rooms, was a good place for Ramirez to go unnoticed as he killed 13 women, Schave said. He was "just dumping his bloody clothes in the Dumpster at the end of his evening and going in the back entrance."

Jack Unterweger worked as a journalist covering Los Angeles crime for an Austrian magazine in 1991 when he moved into the Cecil.

"We believe he was living at the Cecil in homage to Ramirez," Schave said.
He is blamed with killing three prostitutes in Los Angeles while a guest at the Cecil.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Cecil had a reputation as a place where people would kill themselves by jumping out upper-floor windows, tour guide Kim Cooper said. "It's just what people do when they are at the end of their rope," she said.

Helen Gurnee, in her 50s, leaped from a seventh floor window, landing on the Cecil Hotel marquee on October 22, 1954, Cooper said.

Julia Moore jumped from her eighth floor room window on February 11, 1962, she said. Moore left behind a bus ticket from St Louis, 59 cents and an Illinois bank account book showing a balance of $1,800.

Pauline Otton, 27, jumped from a ninth floor window after an argument with her estranged husband on October 12, 1962, Cooper said. Otton landed on George Gianinni, 65, who was walking on the sidewalk 90 feet below. Both were killed instantly.

Not everyone on Cooper's list committed suicide.

"Pigeon Goldie" Osgood, a retired telephone operator, was found dead in her ransacked room on June 4, 1964, Cooper said. Osgood, known for protecting and feeding the pigeons at nearby Pershing Square, was stabbed, strangled and raped. The crime has not been solved.

Schave and Cooper have theories about why the Cecil's past has been so sordid.

It was built in the 1920s as a hotel "for businessmen to come into town and spend a night or two," Cooper said.

But it was soon upstaged by nicer hotels in a better part of town, she said. When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, it became more of a transient hotel. Eventually, it transitioned into a single room occupancy business, known as an SRO. Long-term tenants rented individual rooms and shared bathrooms with neighboring residents.

"This was just a place where people who were really down on their luck were going," Schave said. "These hotels are filled with people who are at the edge of being integrated in society."

During the 1970s, '80s and '90s, hundreds of people who were "down on their luck" called the Cecil home, he said. "They were all hustling to make ends meet."

"It's not like that any more, of course," Cooper said.

New owners converted three of the floors back to hotel rooms around 2007, but most of the building remains SRO, Schave said. Another section serves as a hostel that is marketed toward European tourists, he said.

Watch a CNN report from February 2013 on the Cecil's dark past:

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  Alan Duke

Editor-in-Chief Alan Duke co-founded Lead Stories after ending a 26-year career with CNN, where he mainly covered entertainment, current affairs and politics. Duke closely covered domestic terrorism cases for CNN, including the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, the UNABOMBER and search for Southeast bomber Eric Robert Rudolph. CNN moved Duke to Los Angeles in 2009 to cover the entertainment beat. Duke also co-hosted a daily podcast with former HLN host Nancy Grace, "Crime Stories with Nancy Grace" and hosted the podcast series "Stan Lee's World: His Real Life Battle with Heroes & Villains." You'll also see Duke in many news documentaries, including on the Reelz channel, CNN and HLN.

Read more about or contact Alan Duke

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