Over the Line

As Mexican drug cartels increasingly recruit American teens as runners, a Sugar Land teen goes across the border and ends up dead.

"I think it was all really hard for Elisabeth, because she was so young," Adriana says.

Adriana noticed Elisabeth acting out toward her mother for the first time, talking back, staying away from home and not letting Paula know where she was.

Almost always, she was just with a friend or sleeping over at Adriana's house. One time, however, a little before Elisabeth turned 16, she left school for the weekend with a friend and didn't tell anyone where she was staying. When Paula couldn't find her, she called the police and filed a missing-persons report. Elisabeth came home the next day.

Eighteen-year-old Elisabeth Mandala was a few weeks away from graduation at Sugar Land's Kempner High School before her murder in Mexico.
Photos courtesy Adriana Mandala
Eighteen-year-old Elisabeth Mandala was a few weeks away from graduation at Sugar Land's Kempner High School before her murder in Mexico.

"I don't know if it was a typical teenager thing, because I didn't go through that, but teenagers drink and she'd be out drinking, too," Adriana says. "It's not like she was in a gang or the mafia or anything like that."

Far from it, because despite the minor problems at home, Elisabeth did well in school, rarely missing classes. When she entered Sugar Land's Kempner High School, Elisabeth made the varsity soccer team. She picked the same number that Adriana wore when she made the team five years earlier.

Elisabeth was also a member of the ROTC during her freshman year, Adriana says, and she joined AVID, a college preparatory organization designed to get students ready for four-year universities.

After Elisabeth turned 16, and Adriana's son was a little older, the sisters made up for lost time. For about a year and a half before Elisabeth was murdered, Adriana says, the two were inseparable.

"We got close to the point where I'd just call her up after I got off work and she'd drive over," Adriana says.

During the school week, the sisters would take Adriana's three-year-old son to the park or the mall, or Elisabeth would stay in at her sister's place and babysit while Adriana went grocery shopping or to the hair salon.

Adriana pushed the idea of college, and Elisabeth, who said she eventually wanted to be a veterinarian, agreed to get serious about applying for schools and financial aid. In fact, Adriana, who works as a nurse, planned to go back to school with Elisabeth and finish her degree.

When they could find another family member to watch Adriana's son, they would spend the weekend with a group of friends going out to clubs. But Elisabeth got bored with that scene eventually, Adriana says, and she even wanted to stop dating for a while. The sisters decided to join a gym instead.

"Whatever it was, she would always rather be out and about than be at home," Adriana says.

Moments Gentlemen's Club advertises itself as "The Only Adult Entertainment in the City of Pasadena," a far classier place — as far as strip clubs go — than the name suggests.

The building, just down the street from the city's police academy and Sudie's Catfish House, is fairly new and clean, and the manager on duty wears a blazer when he works the floor. According to Vance Mitchell, a representative with the Pasadena Police Department, officers get fewer calls to Moments than to most businesses in the city.

It's also the place where Elisabeth decided to try out stripping.

One woman who works at Moments — she didn't want her name, even her stage name, published — said Elisabeth danced at the club for only a couple weeks before she disappeared.

"We're not supposed to talk about it," the woman told the Press. "I really don't know that much about her."

Elisabeth's short stripper career is one of the oddest parts of her story, because, at first glance, it didn't seem that Elisabeth was in desperate need of money. Her family isn't rich, but according to her sister, Elisabeth rarely had to worry about getting what she wanted.

Not long after she turned 16, for instance, Elisabeth's parents helped her get a Toyota Corolla. She had to make her own car payments, and to do so, she got a job working as a hostess at the Pappadeaux in Sugar Land, just a few miles from her house. Adriana had worked there, too.

After Elisabeth got on the co-op program at Kempner, she started working afternoons as a secretary for her father's roofing business.

Even if she couldn't make her car payment, Adriana says, her parents would cover it. And if Adriana picked up Elisabeth at her mom's house to go out to eat or go shopping, Elisabeth would always ask for cash, and more often than not, Paula would comply.

"It's not like she ever needed money for school or to pay rent or even her car," Adriana says.

But, as it turns out, Elisabeth might have had bigger plans that needed financing.

At the end of 2009, Elisabeth traveled with her father to Italy for the first time, to stay a week and to celebrate New Year's Eve in Rome.

"She liked it so much that my family told her that she should try to move there after graduation and go to college," says Robert Mandala, Elisabeth's father. "I think she took it very seriously."

Adriana adds, "She kept talking about going back, and I know she wanted to go back by this summer."

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