Kristin Smart went to a college party on a May night in 1996.
She was a freshman at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo at the time, and the night of the party, she was wearing running shorts and what the Los Angeles Times described as a “short-cropped T-shirt.” She left with other students, the newspaper reported, including Paul Flores, who was the last person to see the 19-year-old Smart alive and would later become a “person of interest” in her disappearance.
Smart went missing after that party.
Now, 20 years later, local and federal authorities have begun an “excavation project” on the Cal Poly campus in an effort to determine whether Smart’s remains are on the premises.
“After a comprehensive review of the Smart case, a lead was developed over the past two years that strongly suggested the remains of Kristin might be buried on the hillside near the Cal Poly ‘P’ landmark,” the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.
Dogs brought in to search the area earlier this year had “alerted” on sites in the area, according to the sheriff’s office. The agency said the “P” wasn’t the only location that investigators were focusing on, but it was disclosed because of its high-profile nature.
“Due to its high visibility, we really decided that it was best just to go ahead and disclose why we are here,” Sheriff Ian Parkinson told reporters.
About 25 FBI agents and about 15 members of the sheriff’s office would search the site in the coming days, Parkinson said at a news conference.
“We’re not sure where this is going to take us,” he said. “Obviously, we want to be [as] optimistic as possible. And we hope that this leads us to either Kristin or evidence of Kristin.”
In a statement, Smart’s family said they were “encouraged and hopeful for the new developments” in the case.
“We have been hoping, praying and waiting for the last twenty years for the return of our daughter. And while the road has been difficult beyond words; our hopes were rekindled when Sheriff Parkinson took office,” the statement read.
The San Luis Obispo Tribune reported that “a steady hum of machinery filled the air on a steep Cal Poly hillside Wednesday as members of the FBI Evidence Response Team combed through thousands of cubic feet of dirt.”
“It is hard labor,” FBI Special Agent Tom Brenneis said, according to the Tribune, which noted:
Over the next few days, the team will sift through 20,000 cubic feet of dirt — the equivalent of about a dozen 26-foot-long moving trucks filled to capacity — at each of three different locations on the hillside near the Cal Poly “P,” the landmark concrete letter that has overlooked campus since 1919. …
Sheriff’s officials did not say Wednesday whether anything of interest had been unearthed. Sheriff Ian Parkinson will determine the timing of any announcement, spokesman Tony Cipolla said.
“I think he’s just waiting to see what, if anything, is found before we do any kind of announcement,” Cipolla said, noting that Parkinson would not want to jeopardize the investigation.
He added: “A lot of people are excited that we may find her. Well, we haven’t. Not yet.”
“We are always hopeful, that really keeps us going,” Kristin Smart’s father, Stan, told KCRA. “And it’s been 20 long years, so we are excited that they are looking — but it’s a long stretch.”
The L.A. Times reported Thursday that investigators had located “items of interest” during the excavation, though the specifics remained unclear. Cipolla told the Times that authorities “have found items of interest.”
“We are not disclosing what those items are at this point,” Cipolla told the Times. “They are being analyzed to see if they are related to this investigation.”
This is not the first time authorities have tried to locate Smart’s remains. Hundreds searched the campus in June 1996, after the teen’s disappearance, according to the Tribune. And in July of that year, authorities visited the home of Flores, the male student who was the last person to be seen with Smart.
Flores, authorities said this week, remains a “person of interest” in the case.
The searches continued through the years, but investigators never found Smart’s body.
Her roommate told ABC News that she grew concerned when Smart wasn’t around after the party in 1996. The roommate tried to alert campus authorities, but her efforts weren’t successful.
“They were like, ‘It’s Memorial Day weekend, and if we did this, if we filled out a missing person’s [report] for every student who went away for the weekend, etc.,'” Smart’s roommate, Crystal Calvin, told ABC. “‘You know that’s not really necessary. I’m sure she’ll be back.'”
A few days later, Smart was declared missing.
She was last seen with Flores, who had also been at the party, the Times reported in 2006. Another student who had been with Smart, Cheryl Anderson, later said in a deposition that she broke away from the duo as they walked back to the dorms.
“I said, ‘Will you walk her to her room?’ you know, ‘Will you take her back to her room?”’ she said. “And he said, ‘Yes.’ And I said something about ‘Yes?’ and he said — and I said, ‘If you won’t, I will do it. I will walk her to her room,’ you know. … I didn’t want to have to do it. But, you know, if he didn’t want to do it I was — I was going to do it.”
Smart had previously been seen on a lawn near the party, according to the Times. Another student, Tim Davis, told investigators that he saw her there. Smart looked like she had passed out, the Times reported, and Davis — who was clearing out the party around 2 a.m. — told authorities that he got her up.
But Smart wasn’t in a state in which she could get back to her dorm by herself. That’s how she ended up walking back with Anderson and Flores.
The student who told of leaving Smart near her dorm was questioned by authorities and his home was searched but he was not arrested or charged in the case. Asked if that man is a suspect, Parkinson said, “I would say it’s safe to say he’s a person of interest in the case.”
The sheriff also said it was “probably accurate” that authorities were now no closer to making any arrest than they were previously.
“People have asked us, ‘Would you be happy, you know, if the person that’s accused of doing this went to jail or whatever?’ Doesn’t replace your daughter,” Smart’s father, Stan, told KCRA.
There are remembrances for Smart on a bluff near the Pacific, according to Mustang News, Cal Poly’s student newspaper. Two benches are located at the spot, the newspaper reports.
Smart’s name can be found on a plaque next to one of the benches. Next to the other, there’s a plaque displaying a poem she wrote about the ocean.
“Nothing really has changed,” Stan Smart told the Times in 2006. “I mean, I still have a lot of anger about the situation. And my wife is a bit of an emotional wreck at times. And it hasn’t been resolved. We haven’t really resolved the issues as to where our daughter is, and what happened to her.”
On Wednesday, at the dig site, the Tribune reported, “as a CAT excavator scraped away hunks of dirt with its claw, a CAT compact terrain loader moved piles over to the FBI team. About 10 agents wearing blue FBI shirts, hats and masks sifted through dirt using rakes and shovels, trying to find anything of ‘evidentiary value.'”
“Once we find something, then we’ll hone in on it and it will get down to brushes and trowels, more like an archaeological dig,” the FBI’s Brenneis told the Tribune.
But, the newspaper reported:
So far, though, the team is finding a lot of trash and has to analyze whether there’s anything they want to keep.
This story has been updated to correct a reference to ABC News.