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Maria and Mellie Got Lost

How did two young, smart, and beautiful college girls wind up dead from a cocaine-and-heroin overdose?


Maria Pesantez (left) and Mellie Carballo.  

On a warm Thursday night in August, two days before she died, Maria Pesantez, a tan, blonde 18-year-old NYU scholarship student with an appetite for punk rock, was running down her cell-phone battery in her bedroom in Jackson Heights, Queens, laughing and flirting with her boyfriend, Nick Genovese, a bass player in a blisteringly loud college band called Elysia Falls. It was a few weeks before what would have been the start of her sophomore year, and Maria couldn’t bear to be apart from Nick, who was spending the summer at home in Washington, D.C. The call went on for so long that Maria had to ask to borrow her sister’s cell phone to keep talking. All the while, she was multitasking on her laptop, scouring the Web for a stray ticket to the Warped Tour, the hardcore megashow with one of her favorite bands, Fall Out Boy, that was coming to Camden, New Jersey, that Friday and Randalls Island on Saturday. But it was no use. Although many of her friends had tickets, Maria was shut out.

From an early age, Maria had been the family achiever—the good daughter destined to fulfill her immigrant parents’ high expectations. Marcia and Juan Carlos Pesantez had moved to New York from Ecuador when Maria was 7, and almost immediately Maria stood out. With a mind for math, Maria earned straight A’s with little effort at Saint Vincent Ferrer High School, an all-girls Catholic school on Manhattan’s East Side that she’d attended on scholarship. If she cut loose at all, it was with punk—the Ramones, the Clash, almost anything loud. And with fashion: Maria had several ear-piercings and for a time dyed the tips of her hair red, hiding both alterations from her teachers with a wig. She was a little chubby, but dressing like a punk allowed her to conceal her body with oversize band T-shirts. Maria and a few close friends mostly hung out at each other’s houses; now and then they’d save up to go dancing or to a concert, but her mother could count on one hand the times Maria came home late with alcohol on her breath. In her senior year, everything Maria had worked for paid off. She was accepted at both Columbia and Harvard, but she turned down both to stay close to home and attend NYU, on an almost full scholarship.

In her freshman year, Maria had begun to change. Thanks to Herbalife, a gym regimen, and liposuction during winter break, she had lost 30 pounds. Lately, Maria had been taking pictures of her new, thinner self, and she’d laugh triumphantly when people told her she looked like Mariah Carey. She loved meeting boys, going out to shows, and staying up late; drinking was a big part of that, too. A year ago, she pierced the underside of her tongue without telling her parents. But she’d still pop by Jackson Heights for surprise visits, and bring friends back to crash on her parents’ couch and have pancakes the next morning.

During the summer, Maria and her family had spent six weeks in Ecuador, and Maria now seemed determined to get out and have fun. Warped was a perfect chance. That night, Maria’s parents were somewhat startled to hear her complain that if she’d stayed home from Ecuador, she’d surely have a ticket. She went to bed fuming. But early the next morning, the promise of a ticket appeared to materialize from her high-school friend Mellie.

Like Maria, Mellie Carballo was a talented and charismatic daughter of hard-working immigrants. Her parents looked on her not as a golden child but as a force of nature—independent, unpredictable, eager to bypass teendom for the larger adult world. Mellie’s grades at Saint Vincent’s were not as good as Maria’s. She was the class iconoclast—a precocious individualist who made up her own fashions and fit into no clique. Maria had played at being a punk, but Mellie was more like the real deal; she had dyed the tips of her hair a shocking blue and didn’t bother with a wig. She went out to shows on weeknights and hung out with the bands afterward until dawn. Mellie had left Saint Vincent’s a year early and finished elsewhere but had kept in touch with Maria after she enrolled at Hunter College. An exotic beauty with alabaster skin, ebony hair, and cheekbones that ached to be photographed, she was thinking of becoming a model; in December, she’d gotten a nose job.

And although it had been a few years since Mellie and Maria were close, they were friendly enough for Mellie to have called Maria at 7:45 on Friday morning, August 12, with the promise of a ticket.

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