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.

Then, after Elisabeth returned from Italy and started her last semester of high school at Kempner, she somehow became involved in a scam that seemed the equivalent of e-mails sent out by a Nigerian prince. Her family knew something strange was going on when Elisabeth started asking for large sums of cash.

"They were telling her that she needed to send them money so they could give her a lot more money," Adriana says. "I told her, my mom told her, my dad told her, everyone kept telling her it was a scam, but I think she was so determined and thought that people looked at her like she was dumb, and she wanted to prove to them that it was true."

Elisabeth once even called her mom to say she was leaving school early because her contact in the scheme said he needed more money or the deal would fall through.

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.

Adriana never found out what happened, or if it ended, because Elisabeth quit talking about it. After Elisabeth's death, the family found receipts for money transfers she had sent to England.

"It was just small amounts here and there," Adriana says. "But it added up to a couple thousand dollars."

A few weeks after Elisabeth turned 18, in March of this year, she went out to a club with Adriana and some of her friends. Adriana asked Elisabeth to stop drinking, or to stop drinking so much, but Elisabeth wouldn't. They got into an argument.

"She knows I don't like it when she acts that way, just obnoxious and rude, and the next day, I decided to kind of distance myself a little bit," Adriana says. "Normally she would call me back and we'd start hanging out again, but this time she didn't. She kept doing her own thing."

Adriana saw Elisabeth for the last time in April when she drove out to her mom's house to borrow some of Elisabeth's clothes. Usually, Elisabeth would ask Adriana where she was going, or whom she was going with. This time, however, Elisabeth just handed her the clothes and went back inside. The sisters hadn't talked for more than a month.

"It got to the point where all my friends started asking about her, and why she wasn't with me anymore," Adriana says. "I thought she was still mad, but looking back, I think she was using that time to plan whatever it is she went [to Mexico] to do."

About the same time, Elisabeth started dancing in Pasadena.

The manager at Moments wouldn't talk to the Press about Elisabeth, but in her short time there, it seems she had been a popular girl.

"She didn't act slutty or anything like that, like the way people have talked about her," says the dancer interviewed by the Press. "I could tell she was young. She was real hyper, and she really just wanted to be everyone's friend."

Elisabeth became so popular, in fact, that Tip Out magazine, which calls itself "Houston's Alternative Lifestyle Magazine," publishing, among other things, glossy photos of dancers from area strip clubs, featured Elisabeth as one of its May girls of the month.

In the picture, Elisabeth poses on a sofa against a wood-paneled wall in the back of Moments. Her hair looks like it has just been bleached a platinum blond, and Elisabeth, advertised as "Lovely," isn't smiling. She's on her knees with her back arched a bit, her head tilted at an awkward angle. She looks confident, but certainly not comfortable. Her body is almost rigid.

Elisabeth left for Mexico just days before the picture came out.

On Tuesday, April 27, Elisabeth got home from school, then left her mother's house in a rental car — she had taken her Corolla to the shop the day before to have her brakes redone — to go to a friend's house. She told her mother that she would be back later that night.

She never came back, and the next afternoon, according to Adriana, Paula drove to Kempner to see if her daughter had shown up for classes. Elisabeth wasn't there, but someone had forged her name on the co-op program's attendance sheet.

Paula called her ex-husband to see if he had heard anything from their daughter, because Elisabeth was supposed to be in his office that afternoon for work. Robert tried to contact her, and late that night, Elisabeth returned a text, simply saying, "I'm in Mexico. I'll be back tomorrow."

"I guess my mom felt a little bit more secure after that, because my dad had talked to her," Adriana says. "But we had no idea why she left, and my mom was pretty mad. She kept saying that Elisabeth was going to mess up her graduation by running off to Mexico."

She adds, "But Elisabeth always worried her, and [my mom] just thought that she was going to show up like she said."

When the family still hadn't heard anything by Friday, Adriana started to worry. She called several times that morning, but Elisabeth's phone went straight to voice mail. She even sent several Facebook messages after seeing that Elisabeth had posted on her own page something similar to what she texted her father: "In Mexico. Be back Thursday."

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