By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
In the early morning hours of May 1, Mexican authorities found two trucks smashed into each other along a federal highway, about 30 miles northwest of Monterrey in northern Mexico.
Inside one of the vehicles, a black Dodge pickup with Texas license plates, police found three dead bodies — two men and a teenage girl. Photos from the scene show the girl's bloody and bruised body, clad in a hot pink shirt and black skirt. She's lying across the truck's bench seat, and her face isn't visible; it's partly covered by her bleached blond hair. (The driver of the other truck wasn't hurt.)
In someplace other than Mexico, investigators might have wanted time to decide if the car collision or something else had killed the people inside. But here it was quickly determined that the girl and two men had been beaten to death.
Someone had placed rocks on the truck's accelerator to send the pickup speeding down the road. It crashed into a delivery truck from a business in the nearby town of Mina.
Mexican authorities from the Nuevo León Ministerio Público identified the men as Mexican, both middle-aged. The girl, however, seemed entirely out of place. She carried a passport that identified her as 18-year-old Elisabeth Mandala from Sugar Land.
"The experts mentioned there are no gunshot holes in the bodies of the victims, but their bodies are full of blood, indicating they were attacked with blows," reported El Porvenir, a Monterrey newspaper. "The bodies of the victims were on each other...so it is suspected that they were already dead before the big impact."
A few years ago, a triple murder involving an American teenager in Mexico might have been bigger news. Border towns, after all, have long been favorite destinations, considered fairly safe, for American youth looking for reckless fun.
But violence in Mexico is now part of daily life, and Americans are discouraged from straying too far from resort cities that line the country's southern coasts. And it's not just the frequency of crime along the border that's frightening. In one murder from January of this year, for example, a man's face was cut off and sewn to a soccer ball.
And when the victims appear somehow linked to crime — the two men with Elisabeth carried multiple forms of false identification and one had a lengthy criminal record — few people regard them as victims at all.
"When that's the case, it becomes very difficult to find out much of anything," says Jim Moritz, one of the few private investigators in Texas who will work in Mexico. "If you go there to, say, pick up drugs, you're doing that at your own peril."
In fact, last year the Texas Department of Public Safety warned parents that Mexican drug cartels are actively recruiting Texas youth.
"These violent organizations are luring teens with the prospect of cars, money and notoriety, promising them if they get caught, they will receive a minimal sentence," a DPS report states. "The Mexican cartels...are now using state-based gangs and our youth to support their operations on both sides of the border."
The warning came on the heels of the shocking arrest of two Texas teens who worked as assassins for the Gulf Cartel and started killing at ages 13 and 16. According to an article in Details magazine, the teens often bragged about money and girls, along with killing other boys their age.
"Along the border, this is all there is," one of the boys told the Details reporter. "You're either a cop, a federal agent, or a drug trafficker. For kids like me, there's only one path."
The benefit to cartels is that American citizens can move easily across the border. Especially young people, who have long crossed into Mexico for weekend trips, making them familiar faces to police.
Mandala's murder, initially, made a few small headlines at news agencies in Monterrey, and newspaper and television reports followed in Houston. Elisabeth's sister, 23-year-old Adriana Mandala, told the Houston Chronicle a few days after the crime that it was simply "a very sensitive situation."
But when news broke that Mandala, the high school student from suburban Houston, had worked as an "exotic dancer" and bragged about becoming a coyote, the story went national.
CBS News identified Mandala as "the teen stripper," and others called her a "student-turned-stripper." AOL News headlined its story, "Death in the Fast Lane..."
When NBC's Today Show reported the story, it brought on a former profiler from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to theorize how this could happen to a young woman. "It sounds like she was living life on the wild side a little bit. And again, at 18," the FBI profiler told reporter Ann Curry, "you think you're bulletproof."
At one point, when television news vans and reporters got so thick along the road in front of the small horse ranch where Elisabeth grew up, her mother closed and locked the gate to her property. She stopped talking.
But the basic narrative of Elisabeth's fate was already born: The attractive, privileged high school student living a double life wanted to smuggle people across the border, and she was murdered because of it.
According to people interviewed by the Houston Press, however, that narrative isn't entirely true. Worse yet, Mandala's family is losing hope that police will ever deliver answers about what happened. U.S. authorities say they don't have jurisdiction; it is a Mexican matter. The Mexican authorities, busy at war with the cartels, rarely pursue murder cases involving a possible trafficker or human smuggler. Those victims, after all, are the same people they're fighting against.
Still, Paula Mandala says, "[Elisabeth] was an American. They have to care about an American."
When a U.S. citizen is killed in Mexico, there is surprisingly little that can be done by authorities here. In fact, when the U.S. Department of State publishes travel warnings about Mexico — the latest was renewed in May — it's sure to mention that the low rate of arrest and conviction is a major cause of crime.
According to FBI guidelines, which date back to the mid-1980s, American involvement in foreign crimes is usually reserved for hostage and kidnapping situations.
"Our jurisdiction doesn't extend to non-terrorism related homicides, robberies, rapes, and muggings of Americans — these are usually handled by local authorities," says the FBI report, "What Happens When an American Is Harmed Overseas." "But we can — and sometimes do — offer investigative or forensics assistance in these cases if asked."
When Natalee Holloway, the teenager from Alabama, disappeared in Aruba in 2005, for example, finding her became an international effort in what was one of the most publicized crimes of the last decade. But if she had simply been found murdered on the beach, it's possible that the FBI never would have been involved.
"Because we know [Elisabeth's] murder happened on Mexican soil, there's not much we can do," says Shauna Dunlap, who works in the FBI's Houston field office. "Until we get a call requesting our services, we don't have any jurisdiction."
Families who want more information are left to pursue it on their own, or hire a private investigator. And when it comes to Mexico, there aren't many to call.
"The last several years have changed the tenor of what's going on in Mexico dramatically," Moritz says. "You better know what you're doing if you think you're going to come back out unscathed."
He adds, "It really takes somebody that has contacts down there, has worked down there, knows somebody down there, that sort of thing. I know the investigators [in Houston], and there's only one or two of us that have ever done any work in Mexico."
Moritz says he handles about eight cases a year across the border. He's currently trying to track down a fugitive for a corporation that hired him. But he also works drug cases and murders, which usually lead him, he says, to Juárez.
"A lot of people disappear down there from a lot of different backgrounds," Moritz says. "Sometimes they want to, and, obviously, sometimes not."
During the last four years, since Mexico's President Felipe Calderón announced his war on the country's drug cartels, violence has exploded along the border. During that time, more than 22,000 murders have been linked to the cartels, according to reports from the State Department.
The latest trend is that more and more innocent bystanders from America are being killed, such as the school board member from California who was shot in a case of mistaken identity while visiting his wife in Mexico.
A story published in the Houston Chronicle from January of this year mentioned an Austin priest who was killed and dumped in Nuevo Laredo, along with a 26-year-old Air Force medic killed while helping a gunshot victim in a Juárez bar. And "four young adults aged 19 to 23" were killed in their van after "partying with the wrong people."
In recent years, the U.S. Consulate General has worked to keep its own people out of the popular entertainment districts, according to reports from the State Department. For instance, "Boys Town," the famous spot in Nuevo Laredo and once a favorite of Texas frat boys, is now strictly off limits to government employees. It's become too dangerous.
"I work a lot of these types of cases, and a lot of it has to do with what someone's activities were here before they go to Mexico," Moritz says. "People just don't get on a plane or drive to Mexico one day to pick up drugs, or whatever it is they're after."
He adds, "But they're almost impossible cases to work."
When Paula Mandala left Mexico for Texas three decades ago, the country had little resemblance to the place it has become today. In fact, only a few of Mandala's extended family members remain in Mexico.
After moving to Houston, she married an Italian-American, and by the time Elisabeth was born in the spring of 1992, the fourth of six children, the Mandalas had saved enough money to buy a small horse ranch on the outskirts of Sugar Land. Paula named the place Plantation Stables.
Not long after Elisabeth turned ten, her parents divorced and her father moved away from the ranch and across town. A couple years later, Elisabeth's sister Adriana became pregnant and moved out, shifting her attention from her younger sister and to her newborn. At the same time, Paula was busy with a young child, nine years younger than Elisabeth, of her own. As a 13-year-old girl, Elisabeth was, for the most part, alone.
"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.
"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."
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.
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."
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.
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.