San Antonio mother raising teen dating violence awareness in honor of late 19-year-old daughter

Erin Castro and Cayley Mandadi are among the young people honored in the CLEAR Alert, which is issued for people 18 - 64.

Brittaney Wilmore Image
Friday, February 16, 2024
Families of Erin Rios Castro and Cayley Mandadi share how Texas teens' deaths led to lasting legacy in CLEAR Alert
Erin Castro and Cayley Mandadi's families were connected by what happened to their daughters, but are also honored in the Texas CLEAR Alert system.

"Erin was a firecracker. She was so outgoing. She was loud. She was funny. She had a lot of friends," recalled Rena Castro.

Rena is the mother of Erin Rios Castro. The youngest of four children, Erin had confidence that lit up a room.

"She was very determined, outspoken. If she thought something was wrong, she would speak up for the little person that wouldn't speak up for themselves," Rena told ABC13. "I didn't believe that kind of person could be abused or made to feel less of themself, but it really can happen to anyone."

It's why Rena has made it her passion to talk to teens about healthy relationships to help break that cycle of abuse through the Erin Rios Castro Foundation.

When Erin was in high school in San Antonio, she began dating another student, Joshua Garcia, and Rena noticed her daughter, the girl who loved to hang out with her tight-knit family and spend time at her grandmother's house, start to pull away.

"It didn't happen overnight. It was a slow progression of things, changing her makeup slowly, to changing her dress, to taking her away from her friends, and before you knew it, Erin had lost Erin," Rena said. "She had lost herself, and whatever he liked, she liked."

"The big thing was the anxiety when the phone would ring, and she had to answer that phone," Rena continued. "I knew that something serious was going on."

According to Rena, Garcia would say harmful things to her daughter about her weight and play on her emotions, to the point that Erin felt she needed to save him.

"All the shaming that comes with domestic violence, she started to believe it," Rena said. "It was almost like a brainwashing. I remember having a conversation with her, and she was crying because she didn't want to be with him, but she didn't know how to leave the situation, and I said, 'You just leave. You don't have any ties to this person, you don't owe him anything.'"

Among young adults and teens, dating violence is more common than you think.

Data from shows one in three U.S. teens will experience physical, sexual or emotional abuse from someone they're in a relationship with before becoming adults. And as notes, those are also types of dating violence, which can include stalking.

Like many instances of abuse, it didn't just happen one time. Despite going to the school, even talking to Garcia's mother, Rena said, it continued. She would end up pressing charges as incidents escalated, and when Josh was kicked out of school, Rena felt like she had her daughter back.

Watch Erin's story below.

"Erin was a firecracker. She was so outgoing. She was loud. She was funny. She had a lot of friends," recalled Rena Castro. Here, Rena shares Erin's story.

Erin was determined to walk with her classmates for graduation. "She was able to really shine and do her work," Rena shared, adding that in Garcia's absence, it seemed things were looking up.

"She was such a brilliant, smart, intelligent girl, and her grades did slip her last year of school," Rena explained.

It's part of why the foundation named for her daughter offers scholarships, but doesn't place an emphasis on GPA or extracurricular activities.

"I understand that when you're going through something, your grades might slip," Rena said. "That doesn't mean you're not an intelligent person that can't still go on with your life and achieve something."

Erin was applying to school to pursue her dreams of becoming a veterinarian and looked forward to milestones in a teen's life such as getting her braces off and her first car.

Then the calls from Garcia started again.

"The system gives probation like giving out candy. I'm very upset that things were not done more harshly because this was event after event that were being recorded, and the last time before, he had broken her nose and thrown her out his moving vehicle, and she had rash burn on her leg and was just a shell of herself," Rena said.

Rena said she took different approaches to helping her daughter, also taking the time to talk to Garcia in hopes that something would change.

"This doesn't have to define your life," she says she told him. "You can still do great things, you can still go on. You can look back 10 years from now and be doing something productive."

Months later, it was Erin's birthday. The day she turned 19 in 2018, she planned to go out with some of her longtime friends.

"He decided to come in and invite himself," Rena said of Garcia.

At some point that day, Erin ended up with him. Authorities say Garcia ran over her, leaving her body on the side of the road.

When she was killed, Garcia was on deferred adjudication probation for the charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for hitting Erin with a vehicle in 2016.

In 2021, Garcia was sentenced to 35 years in prison for her murder.

"What I do understand about predators, whenever something good is going on in your life, they just want to ruin it," Rena told ABC13. "If somebody that you're with, you're about to receive an award or your birthday is coming up or something good in your life happens, they want to turn that around and make you miserable. That is a big sign."

The Texas Advocacy Project has a guide online to help parents or guardians start the conversation with their teen if they suspect abuse as well as how to help them develop a safety plan.

The guide suggests starting off by simply asking, "How's it going?" can help ease into what's ultimately a difficult topic.

But as Rena echoed, the questions must be asked.

"Teens, they still will hide things from you, no matter how close you are. So just be vigilant, and don't take those small answers that they give you," she said. "Unexplained bruises, you see that, make a big deal about it. If this can just start a conversation between a parent and their teen about Erin and her story and what happened and how fast things can go wrong. An argument can turn into something so fatal so quickly, and we don't realize that young kids can be deadly."

After Erin passed, Rena said she got a phone call from a Houston mother, Alison Steele, whose own daughter, 19-year-old Cayley Mandadi, a cheerleader at Trinity University in San Antonio, was killed under similar circumstances involving a partner in 2017. After a mistrial in 2019, Mark Howerton was found guilty of aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2023.

Cayley's Calling, in honor of Cayley Mandadi, is a nonprofit created to help save the lives of endangered and missing people through education and advocacy.

Before her death, Mandadi went missing and friends and family went to law enforcement for help to find her. But there was no formal system in place to broadcast information or trigger a rapid response from agencies in Texas about someone her age. At 19, Mandadi was too old for an Amber Alert and didn't qualify for the Silver Alert, which is for people 65 and older.

That prompted Steele to push for CLEAR, or Coordinated Law Enforcement Adult Rescue, an emergency broadcast alert for people between the ages of 18 and 64, who may be missing, kidnapped, abducted, and in immediate danger of injury or death. It's also designed to help in locating any potential suspects. In addition to falling within that age range, the following criteria must be met:

  • Has a preliminary investigation verified the adult is in imminent danger of bodily injury or death or is the disappearance involuntary such as an abduction or kidnapping?
  • Is the CLEAR Alert request within 72 hours of the individual's disappearance?
  • Is sufficient information available to disseminate to the public to help locate the individual, a suspect, or the vehicle used in the incident?
CLEAR also honors Cayley Mandadi, D'Lisa Kelley, Erin Castro, Ashanti Billie and the Rest, unnamed victims who may have been saved had the alert existed sooner.

Rena said that Steele had been working on CLEAR after Mandadi's death, but received that extra nudge to keep pushing for it from none other than Erin.

"She told me that Erin came to her and told her, 'Now there's two of us that this has happened to. You need to get back to work,'" Rena recalled.

"And I thought, 'Oh, well that's nice. Erin could be pushy or whatever, and she was like, 'No, she said it kind of mean. And she said, You need to get off your butt and get back to work,' and I said, 'That was Erin!'" she said with a smile.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed the CLEAR Alert into law in 2019, and in doing so, the acronym also honors victims of violence.

C - Cayley

L - D' Lisa Kelly

E- Erin

A - Ashanti Billie

R- the Rest, meaning unnamed adults whose lives might have been saved if CLEAR existed sooner

"We need to spread that more. A lot of people don't really know before that was passed, there was nothing there if you were between those ages," Rena said. "Quite possibly, it could be a deterrent for that to happen, but it could also save somebody."

The National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline is available 24/7 at 1-866-331-9474 or through live chat and text.

Follow Brittaney Wilmore on Twitter and Instagram.