Investigators in the Kristin Smart case have begun excavating sites on a hillside near the Cal Poly “P,” saying a new lead “strongly suggests” the former Cal Poly freshman’s remains may be buried there, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office announced Tuesday.
Members of the Sheriff’s Office and 25 agents and support staff from the FBI set up a command center on the northeastern boundary of the campus Tuesday and will spend the rest of the week excavating “locations of interest” on the hillside.
Smart has been missing since Memorial Day weekend in 1996 after she was last seen walking back to her dorm after an off-campus party.
Sheriff Ian Parkinson said the locations on campus are among several areas of interest in the county, but he would not reveal specifics.
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“We’re not sure where this is going to take us,” Parkinson said at a news conference Tuesday, cautioning that “we must manage our expectations.” He added, “We will not give up to find Kristin.”
Despite secrecy surrounding the 20-year-old investigation, Parkinson said the excavation was announced to the public because of the location’s “high visibility.” He declined to discuss the other locations at this time.
Parkinson said the campus dig was the result of a lead that was developed during a comprehensive review over the past two years by a new sheriff’s detective assigned to the case full time. That lead indicated that Smart’s remains could still be on the hillside, an area searched by about 400 volunteers on foot over two days in June 1996.
In January of this year, the Sheriff’s Office requested special “human remains detection dogs” be brought in from the FBI headquarters in Virginia to search the hillside. The dogs alerted investigators to several specific areas of interest there, Parkinson said.
The search of the hillside is expected to last four days, with major excavations beginning Wednesday, said FBI Special Agent In Charge Sean Ragan, who is heading the FBI’s efforts in the case. Depending on what they find, Ragan said, they expect the search to be completed Friday, before students begin returning for the start of fall quarter on Sept. 22. Excavation began late Tuesday afternoon.
Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Cipolla said following the news conference that officials have not conducted excavations at the other locations of interest outside of the Cal Poly campus, and are not currently doing so.
Asked about the significance of the timing of the dig shortly before the start of fall quarter classes, Cipolla said it was a matter of coordinating the agencies involved, which also includes the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Department of Justice, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office and the university.
“There was a very narrow window there to make sure we got the FBI there and their equipment. We can’t just call them up and they’re here the next day,” Cipolla said. “It takes a lot of coordination.”
Unlike the initial search of the area in 1996, Parkinson said, this time efforts will be more site-specific and will use precise tools. Investigators will initially dig about 3 feet or deeper, if needed.
Officials would not disclose details about the lead. But when asked, Cipolla called it the case’s “most promising lead we’ve had in years.” Parkinson, however, noted that there have been other leads in the course of the 20-year investigation.
The last person to be seen with Smart in the early morning of May 25, 1996, was Paul Flores, a student who had met Smart at a party late the night before. Smart was seen walking with Flores at the intersection of Perimeter Road and Grand Avenue, toward her dorm at Muir Hall.
Flores remains a “person of interest” in the case, Parkinson said Tuesday, adding that officials have not had any recent communication with Flores or his family.
If she was alive today, Smart would be 39 years old. The 20-year anniversary of the disappearance passed early this year with no new information regarding how the Stockton resident went missing, despite Parkinson adding the new detective to the case to bring “fresh eyes to the investigation.”
“It’s like going to work with a blank sheet of music,” Parkinson told The Tribune in May. “We really wanted an unbiased view of what’s been done to date.”
Parkinson noted that a combined $65,000 reward remains on the table for information leading to the conviction of the person responsible.
The DA’s Office has also assigned a new deputy prosecutor to the Smart case, and that investigator meets regularly with the detective, Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham told The Tribune in May.
Smart’s disappearance also changed the way universities report crimes. Criticism of the university police response to the case resulted two years later in the passage of the Kristin Smart Campus Safety Act, which was championed by the Smart family and supported by the Cal Poly administration.
The measure, signed into law by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, requires publicly funded universities to immediately contact designated outside assisting law enforcement agencies when violent crimes occur or are suspected to have occurred on a college campus. The law requires that schools have written agreements designating responsibilities of assisting agencies, as well as specific geographical boundaries for those agencies, in cases of homicide, rape, aggravated assault and robbery.
Smart’s parents, Stan and Denise Smart of Stockton, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Jim Murphy, the Smarts’ Arroyo Grande-based attorney who is representing them in their civil lawsuit, was out of town and could not immediately be reached.
Parkinson asked that members of the public stay away from the excavation site.
Anyone with information about the Smart case is urged to call the Sheriff’s Office at 805-781-4550 or leave an anonymous tip at Crime Stoppers at 805-549-STOP.
Matt Fountain, Cynthia Lambert and Kaytlyn Leslie contributed to this report.