Kristin Smart’s disappearance remains a mystery, 20 years later

Early on the Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend in 1996, 19-year-old Cal Poly freshman Kristin Smart left a house party just off campus with two friends and headed back to her dorm.

She hasn’t been seen since.

Today, she would have been 39 years old, and Wednesday marks the 20th anniversary of her disappearance.

The long-standing missing person case has left an open wound on the San Luis Obispo County community.

For some, it’s the mystery of how a young woman could seemingly vanish without a trace. For others, it serves as a reminder that even in a seemingly safe community such as San Luis Obispo, horrific crimes happen.

Today, Smart’s parents, Stan and Denise Smart, still live in Stockton and recently celebrated the births of the children of Kristin’s siblings, Matt and Lindsey Smart.

In a statement provided through the Sheriff’s Office on Monday, the Smarts said the anniversary continues to be a difficult and stressful time for their family and that they’ve chosen to honor the milestone in private.

“It seems impossible that 20 years later our journey continues and we are still searching and praying for the recovery of our beautiful daughter,” the statement reads.

However, the family said it is grateful and thankful for the outreach and support of the community and those who keep Kristin’s memory alive.

“The fight and quest will not end until she is home, but our family has made the decision that it is time to move forward and focus our efforts on honoring and celebrating Kristin’s life,” the statement reads. “She was a girl with dreams and visions for the future. We plan to find a way for them to live on.”

The family said it plans to publicly honor and celebrate Kristin’s memory during the coming year.

The Smarts also continue to encourage anyone with knowledge of the case to contact investigators with what they know.

“We are grateful for those who have come forward and continue to encourage those who may hold a piece of the puzzle to contact the Sheriff’s Office,” they said. “You can make a difference.”

The case at a glance

Kristin Smart was last seen leaving a house party at 135 Crandall Way near the Cal Poly campus about 2 a.m. May 25, 1996, with Paul Flores and Cheryl Anderson. Each had reportedly been drinking that night during a festive Memorial Day weekend, and by all accounts Smart and Flores seemed to be having fun.

Anderson would later tell investigators that she left Smart with Flores at the intersection of Perimeter Road and Grand Avenue, and continued to her dorm at Sierra Madre Hall. Smart was to walk back to her Muir Hall dorm, and Flores later told police the two parted ways near his own room at Santa Lucia Hall.

On May 27, Jennifer Phillips, a friend of Smart’s at Muir Hall, called the Cal Poly University Police Department to report Smart missing. The agency didn’t take a report at the time, and Phillips contacted the San Luis Obispo Police Department. They took a report, but referred Phillips back to campus police. It was the first time Smart’s parents were alerted to her disappearance.

On May 30, the first of several organized searches was conducted on and around the campus, and Cal Poly police investigators Ray Barrett and Mike Kennedy first interviewed Flores. By the next day, there had been several reported sightings of Smart, a 6-foot-1-inch communications major, around campus and on hiking trails. The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office stepped in with two investigators, Bill Hanley and Larry Hobson, who interviewed Flores at the University Police Department.

It wasn’t until June 5 that Kennedy searched Smart’s dorm room and another five days until, on June 10, he searched Flores’ room. By that time, the academic quarter had ended and Flores had moved all of his belongings out of the room.

More than two weeks had already passed since Smart disappeared.

On June 19, Hanley and Hobson interviewed Flores again at the Arroyo Grande Police Department. In the taped interview, Flores admitted to previously lying to investigators when he told them he received a black eye playing basketball. He reportedly told investigators he received the injury while fixing his truck, then abruptly ended the interview and refused to answer any more questions.

After a month of investigation and amid criticism from the Smart family and their supporters, University Police Chief Tom Mitchell formally requested the help of the County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Ed Williams agreed and took over the case.

Over the weekend of June 29, about 400 volunteers turned out for a large-scale search of the campus. Dogs used to search for human remains were also brought in, with four of those independently alerting investigators to Flores’ dorm room — specifically to his stripped mattress. Investigators then searched Flores’ parents’ Arroyo Grande home, which yielded no clues.

In an unusual move, the District Attorney’s Office in October 1996 issued subpoenas for eight people to testify before the county grand jury in Smart’s disappearance. Among those called to testify were Flores and his parents, Susan and Ruben Flores. The Smarts filed a $40 million wrongful death lawsuit against Paul Flores in November, alleging that Flores murdered Kristin at Cal Poly. The Smarts would later add Cal Poly to the lawsuit, alleging the university failed to keep their daughter safe.

That lawsuit has since been dropped and refiled, and remains in legal limbo. The Smart family has requested Sheriff’s Office records necessary to prove their case, but those records remain confidential as the criminal investigation continues.

For the Sheriff’s Office, Smart remains a missing person, one of 17 “career missing persons” originating from San Luis Obispo County since 1986. Smart was declared presumed dead in 2002.

Williams previously told The Tribune “there are no other suspects” than Flores. Public records indicate that Flores, now also 39, lives in the Los Angeles area. Calls to David Tedesco, who is listed as Flores’ attorney, as well as a phone number that appears to be Flores’ were not returned.

The investigation continues

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson noted the somber milestone this week, and although he declined to offer any specifics about the ongoing criminal investigation, he said he keeps in constant contact with the Smart family.

“Having adult kids myself, I can certainly empathize with all they’ve been through,” Parkinson said. “Our relationship has been very strong, but it’s tough because you have a crime — and a serious one — and you have to preserve the integrity of the case and try not to disclose any details that will jeopardize prosecution, even to the family.”

Parkinson said one of his first acts as sheriff after being elected in 2010 was to meet with the Smarts and pledge his dedication to solving the case.

“We established boundaries early on, and they were understanding. Sometimes I’ll push those boundaries a little bit, mainly because of what they’ve been through.”

The Smarts have Parkinson’s cellphone number, he said, and an open line whenever they need it.

“On an emotional level, (the case) has me tied in,” Parkinson said.

In the past year and a half, Parkinson assigned a new detective to the case to bring fresh eyes to the investigation.

“It’s like going to work with a blank sheet of music. We really wanted an unbiased view of what’s been done to date,” Parkinson said. “He does have other cases he works on, but this is his primary case.”

Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Cipolla said a review of several months’ timecards shows that the detective averages 15 to 20 hours per week on the Smart case.

The District Attorney’s Office also recently assigned a new deputy prosecutor to the Smart case, and that investigator meets regularly with the detective, according to Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham.

Parkinson said he is briefed on progress in the case every 2 to 3 weeks.

There’s still plenty of work being done, Parkinson said without going into detail. His office still receives a handful of tips every week and each are followed up on, including those from self-described “psychics.”

“Every little bit. We look into all of it,” Parkinson said. “You just can’t rule anything out.”

A personal case

In February of each year, attorney Jim Murphy attends an annual progress hearing on the Smart family’s wrongful death lawsuit against Flores, which has long been stalled as a result of the ongoing criminal investigation.

Murphy and wife Garin Sinclair’s Arroyo Grande-based law firm has represented the Smarts since 1997.

In response to the Smart lawsuit, Flores’ attorneys in previous filings argued that Smart’s own negligence contributed to her disappearance and that the Smarts “had no facts in support of their contention (that the) defendant caused the death of their daughter,” according to court records.

Murphy says the facts are there — but he and the Smarts can’t access them.

Subpoenas filed by Murphy requested the entire Sheriff’s Office investigative report, including interviews with witnesses and Flores, physical evidence, all internal memos concerning the Smart case and forensic reports.

Every year, a representative from the county will tell the judge that the criminal case remains ongoing, and records requested by the family must remain confidential, and another hearing is set.

Sometimes, Murphy says, he can go a couple days without thinking about the case, but an unexpected reminder is always just around the corner. In February, Murphy was driving down Deer Canyon Road in rural Arroyo Grande when he came upon a pair of sheriff’s deputies examining something along the side of the road, just west of the Corbett Canyon Road intersection.

He got out of his car to take a look. It was a set of badly decomposed human remains, including a skull and other bone fragments.

“I remember leaning over as close as I could without getting in the way,” Murphy recalled. “I thought, ‘Could this be Kristin?’ 

The remains turned out to be that of a long-deceased adolescent of Native American descent, a State Parks archaeologist would later determine.

“I know that Kristin’s out there somewhere,” Murphy said. “It just kills me that someone’s child would be gone, and yet no one ever really knows for sure where or why — that kind of pain never goes away.”

Asked about what he hopes for in the civil case, Murphy said he continues to be encouraged by tips his office receives and reassurances he gets from Parkinson, who Murphy said he has faith in.

“I would hope there would be a break in the criminal case, but I would like to hold (Flores) accountable civilly,” Murphy said. “In civil law it’s what’s reasonable based on a preponderance of the evidence, not within a reasonable doubt as in criminal cases. Here, I believe there’s enough circumstantial evidence to prove to a civil jury that Flores is responsible for Kristin’s death.”

Murphy said he is skeptical that Flores will ever face a criminal trial unless he admits guilt or has a “moment of conscience.”

Today, a sign memorializing Smart and seeking information about her appearance remains posted in front of Murphy’s Arroyo Grande office.

“I’ll never, ever take this sign down until Kristin’s found,” Murphy said.

A lasting legacy

Today, a large portion of the Cal Poly student body wasn’t yet born when Smart disappeared. When a reporter informally surveyed a dozen passing students during a busy lunch hour in the University Union — a five-minute walk from where Smart was last seen — just one recognized her.

But when asked if they knew the name Kristin Smart, all but one did. A fourth-year agricultural sciences major said she heard of the case before moving to San Luis Obispo, and that it still serves as a reminder to be aware of her surroundings and take charge of her own safety.

Smart’s disappearance also changed the way universities report crimes. The initial lackluster response by the Cal Poly University Police Department and the criticism that followed 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 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.

The law was so-named after lobbying by the Smarts. However, Cal Poly and Sheriff’s officials told The Tribune at the time that it would not have applied right away to the Smart case because there was no physical evidence of a crime. The Smarts contend that Cal Poly should have recognized the possibility of a crime early on and reached out for assistance.

Asked why Smart’s disappearance has left such an impact on San Luis Obispo County, Parkinson said he believes people are moved by the family’s perseverance in searching for answers.

“For me, a lot of it is the emotional tie to the parents. I think people can empathize with the parents and how hard this must be for them,” he said. “This is not a case of a woman vanishing in thin air. There’s information out there. The not knowing is a killer.”

Parkinson noted that a combined $65,000 reward remains on the table for information that leads to the conviction of the person responsible. He said he would hope the money may remind someone of a fact they had long forgotten.

“Maybe they are enticed by the money, and maybe they’re willing to say, ‘I shared this before but I’m going to share it again,’” he said. “We certainly welcome that.”

Statement from the Smart family

Provided by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office:

May 25, 1996, the day our daughter Kristin’s life was taken. A college freshman at Cal Poly, she walked home with others from an off-campus party, never to be seen again. It seems impossible that 20 years later our journey continues and we are still searching and praying for the recovery of our beautiful daughter.

Our family is eternally grateful and thankful beyond measure for the outreach and support of so many in the community and beyond who have shared their hearts, time and energy to keep Kristin’s memory, story and quest for justice alive.

The 20-year journey to bring Kristin home has been more difficult than anything we could have ever imagined. It is only through your support that our HOPES are still alive.

The fight and quest will not end until she is home, but our family has made the decision that it is time to move forward and focus our efforts on honoring and celebrating Kristin’s life. She was a girl with dreams and visions for the future. We plan to find a way for them to live on. Plans to publicly honor and celebrate her memory and visions during the coming year will be forthcoming.

In that light, our faith and trust to bring Kristin home and prosecute the person responsible continues to lie with Sheriff Parkinson and his department. We are grateful for their unwavering commitment to our family and their efforts to recover our daughter.

We are grateful for those who have come forward and continue to encourage those who may hold a piece of the puzzle to contact the Sheriff’s Office. You can make a difference.

Anticipating this 20-year mark continues to be a difficult and stressful time for our family. In that light, we are choosing to observe this anniversary privately and will be out of town and communication and will not be taking requests for media interviews.

Thank you for understanding and honoring our request to observe this moment in time privately and for your unwavering support of our family as we continue on this journey to bring our Kristin home.

Stan and Denise Smart and family