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.

On Friday afternoon, Adriana says, she saw a missed call from Elisabeth on her cell phone, but when she returned the call, Elisabeth's phone still seemed dead. Adriana's phone rang again later, and the caller ID said it was Elisabeth, but when Adriana answered, it was someone else. Her cell phone was acting screwy.

"It happened again that night, and it did the same thing on Saturday morning," Adriana says. "I swear that it was her spirit trying to call out to me, saying, 'I'm in trouble,' because [police] told us that she was killed Friday night."

The family, of course, didn't know that at the time, and on Saturday, Adriana and Paula drove to a police substation in southwest Houston, a little before noon, to officially report Elisabeth missing.

About seven hours later, an official with the U.S. Consulate in Mexico City called Robert to say that Elisabeth had been found.
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In the days that followed Elisabeth's murder, her family started asking friends if they had any idea what had happened. It turned out that Elisabeth had told a small group what she was planning. Some tried to talk her out of it, Adriana says; others didn't believe her.

But one of the friends had driven Elisabeth to a McDonald's in north Houston, where Elisabeth got in the black Dodge pickup and drove off.

According to Adriana, the reports about Elisabeth going to smuggle people across the border weren't true. That information came from the missing persons report, when, before knowing Elisabeth had been murdered, Adriana told an officer that Elisabeth once joked about becoming a coyote. Elisabeth joked about a lot of things, though, and she said that nearly a year before her death.

Adriana told the cops, she says, hoping it would help them develop leads. But when the information was released to the media, along with details about her stripping, it became the story that was reported over and over.

"Let's just say, she wasn't going there to smuggle people," Adriana says. "I at least know that."

The family tried to shift its focus to helping with the investigation, but soon found that there wasn't one. The Houston Police Department closed its file on Elisabeth as soon as her body was identified.

"The murder happened in Mexico," says Victor Sentise, spokesman for the Houston police. "There's really nothing else that concerns us."

And Shauna Dunlap, who works at the FBI's Houston field office, says that Mexican authorities haven't asked for any help. Even then, Dunlap says, the agency wouldn't head the investigation but only follow any leads in Houston.

"They told us that since it happened in Mexico, there's nothing they can do," Adriana says. "I know that there's so much [crime] going on there, and I guess our case is just one other thing."

The family also talked with a private investigator — not Moritz — about finding more information concerning Elisabeth's murder. The guy told Paula that he would charge several thousand dollars, and he wouldn't travel to Mexico unless the family paid him twice that much.

It was impossible for Paula to come up with that kind of cash, considering she had just about emptied her savings to transport Elisabeth's body back across the border and have her buried at Houston's Forest Park Cemetery.

Since the investigation seemed to have stalled, the Mandala family has dealt with Elisabeth's death differently. Her older brother Michael would only briefly speak to the Press, but said, "We understand that things take time, and we're just waiting for it to work itself out."

Paula has relied on church to remain strong. She says, "I still have another little daughter I have to think about."

Adriana says she hasn't come to terms with the murder, but sometimes she thinks back to the simple things, like never hugging or dancing with Elisabeth again. Then she says she'll have a dream about her sister. She thinks that eventually, Elisabeth will reveal to her in that way what happened in Mexico.

"Maybe the police won't ever do anything, but I feel that what goes around comes around," Adriana says. "I'm not talking about death — I don't want anyone else to die — but maybe whoever did it will have psychological problems."

Adriana has convinced herself that whatever drew Elisabeth to Mexico, it was a one-time thing. There was Italy and college, and Elisabeth still had to get through a last month of high school. Before the sisters had their ­falling-out, Elisabeth asked to use Adriana's cap and gown, and she even wanted to wear one of Adriana's dresses for her upcoming prom.

It's possible that the family will never know what exactly happened, much less who killed her. It's Mexico, after all, where even an American teenager can become a faceless casualty, lost in a place where she never belonged.

paul.knight@houstonpress.com

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