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 for any remains of former Cal Poly freshman Kristin Smart or clues about her disappearance on Memorial Day weekend 20 years ago.
“It is hard labor,” said FBI Special Agent Tom Brenneis, senior team leader for the Los Angeles division Evidence Response Team.
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.
On Tuesday, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office made the announcement that a new lead “strongly suggests” the former Cal Poly freshman’s remains might be buried in the area.
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.”
Smart’s parents, Stan and Denise Smart, also said Wednesday they are encouraged by the new developments — but cautioned that their hopes are tempered by a history of seven fruitless searches over the past two decades.
In an emailed statement, the Smarts, who live in Stockton, said their hopes were rekindled when Parkinson took office in 2011. The excavation work this week on a hillside at the Cal Poly campus, they said, is confirmation of his department’s commitment to the case and a crucial step in bringing their daughter home.
“We are mindful that with or without the hoped-for results from this week’s efforts, we are now on a path that will bring our family peace and comfort,” the Smarts wrote.
“Kristin has long deserved the attention, effort and respect that Sheriff Parkinson, his department, the FBI, the District Attorney and Cal Poly are giving to her recovery and our quest for justice,” they added. “We are confident that the ‘person of interest’ will soon be held accountable for taking her life and harboring her remains for over 20 years.”
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. Cipolla said Wednesday the Sheriff’s Office does keep track of his whereabouts.
Parkinson said Tuesday that 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” from FBI headquarters in Virginia to search the hillside. The dogs, two Springer Spaniels and a German Shepherd mix, alerted investigators to several specific areas of interest there.
“The dogs are very sensitive,” Brenneis said in an interview near the dig site Wednesday. “As an example, if there were human remains at the top of this wash, over a 20-year period for some of that material to come down the wash, that would not be uncommon and they could very easily hit on that.”
But, he added, “There are lots of different things in this area that they could hit on. It could be ancient bones. It could be blood from one of the campus people who was up here hiking. It could be a lot of different things.”
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,” Brenneis said.
“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,” he said.
So far, though, the team is finding a lot of trash and has to analyze whether there’s anything they want to keep.
If any bones are found, first a determination must be made by the FBI’s forensic anthropologists in Virginia that it is human and not an animal bone, Brenneis said.
Then, work would be done to determine whether it matches Smart’s DNA. The sheriff’s coroner unit would be involved if any human remains are found.
“There is no one path to go through, and we have to meticulously go through each little piece and see where it takes us,” he said.