Special to Mustang News
That’s how long it’s been since anyone has seen or talked to Kristin Denise Smart. That’s nearly 76 Cal Poly quarters.
Nineteen years. That’s also how old the Cal Poly freshman was when she was reportedly last seen walking toward her Muir Hall dorm room.
Like thousands of students this spring, Smart was set to finish her first year of college, and summer break loomed just weeks away.
But Smart would never see the end of the 1996 school year.
Who was Kristin Smart?
Purple flowers line the pathway leading to two wooden benches at Dinosaur Caves Park in Pismo Beach. They sit near the edge of a tall bluff, overlooking the sea.
Next to one bench, the face of a 6-foot-1 blonde with dark eyes is etched into a plaque. The name “Kristin Denise Smart” reads under it. A poem written by Smart is inscribed on a plaque next to the other bench, describing her love for the ocean.
“I face into the wind,
it purrs and whistles
its secrets into my ear.
Under the sun,
floating upon the salty waters,
I cringe with excitement to be
in such a heavenly place.”
Her mother, Denise Smart, said the sea breeze was one of Kristin’s favorite things about living on the Central Coast.
“She had an adventurous travel spirit and an extreme love of being by the ocean,” she said.
Denise said if Kristin had her way, she would have attended college in the Caribbean. She settled on Cal Poly, a closer choice to her hometown, Stockton, California.
Her mother said Kristin was a typical college freshman, with high expectations for what her future would hold. She was an adventure seeker with a zest for life — “she was a dreamer.”
Though she had high aspirations, Kristin was also indecisive. She originally enrolled in Cal Poly as an architecture major because of her love of drawing. Denise said she switched majors immediately, transferring to the communication studies department.
Another one of Kristin’s dreams: traveling the world as a reporter.
“She wanted to be the next Joan Lunden,” Denise said. “It’s just still hard for us to believe that she didn’t fulfill her dream.”
Kristin was undecided when it came to her name as well. According to a 2006 article in The Los Angeles Times, Kristin signed off her emails with several nicknames, including Marysol, Trixie and Kianna. The night she disappeared, Roxie was her chosen alias.
The Cal Poly freshman was an older sister to the Smarts’ two other children, Matt and Lindsey. Even in her teen years, Kristin was a daddy’s girl, often sitting on Stan Smart’s lap.
Kristin called her mother every Sunday to check in. When Denise didn’t get her usual phone call at the end of Memorial Day weekend, she began to worry.
Memorial Day weekend, 1996
Kristin began her three-day weekend with a phone call to her family.
“Good news, good news. I’ll call on Sunday.”
The voicemail she left for her mother on the evening of Friday, May 24, would be the last communication she ever had with her family.
Later Friday night, friends dropped Kristin off at 135 Crandall Way, an unofficial fraternity house just feet away from Cal Poly’s campus. Taking advantage of summer-like temperatures, she wore a cropped gray T-shirt, black surfing shorts and red Puma sneakers.
One of those friends, Margarita Campos, recounted Friday’s events to the San Luis Obispo Tribune.
“I can still see her standing there after we dropped her off, a little mad, I think, that I wouldn’t go with her,” Campos said.
Campos said she told Kristin to be careful.
While some witnesses from the party reported Kristin acting extremely intoxicated, others didn’t report her with a drink at all. Some believe it is possible Kristin was slipped a date rape drug. No one is certain about what Kristin consumed that night; her body has never been found to perform an autopsy.
When the party was winding down at about 2 a.m. Saturday, then-senior Tim Davis spotted the tall blonde lying on the lawn next door, apparently passed out. Cheryl Anderson, an acquaintance of Kristin, agreed to help Davis walk her back to Muir Hall.
Paul Flores approached the group and offered to join them. Flores, a freshman and friend of Smart’s, was also leaving the party to head back to Santa Lucia Hall.
When the four students arrived at Cal Poly, Davis parted ways with the others because he lived off campus. Anderson and Flores continued to walk Kristin toward the residence halls on the east side of campus.
Anderson said in a deposition that Kristin made several stops along the way to the red brick residence halls. Flores told Anderson she could go ahead. Anderson said she thought his behavior was odd and waited for the other two to catch up.
Anderson said Flores had his arm around Kristin’s waist and her arms were around his neck. Flores would later confirm to investigators he had his arm around her because “she was freezing.”
Three became two when Anderson parted ways with Kristin and Flores at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Perimeter Road. Anderson said she double-checked with Flores to make sure he would take Kristin back to her room before she made her way down Grand Avenue toward her Sierra Madre residence hall.
“If you won’t, I will do it. I will walk her to her room,” Anderson said in a deposition. “I didn’t want to have to do it, but, you know, if he didn’t want to do it, I was going to do it.”
Flores said he last saw Kristin at the intersection of the walkways leading to their respective residence halls at approximately 2:30 a.m. on May 25, 1996. According to Flores, Kristin walked uphill toward the red brick building.
She hasn’t been seen since.
“What happened, no one knows,” Denise said. “Only Paul and only Kristin really know.”
Denise doesn’t believe her daughter did anything wrong that night. She said whenever Kristin went to parties, she would always let her mother know she got home safely.
“What happened to her could happen to anybody,” she said.
Sunday came and went, and Denise did not receive her weekly call. Because Monday was a holiday, she didn’t think it was unusual.
Kristin’s neighbor in the residence halls contacted the University Police Department (UPD) two days after the party, but they did not take a missing persons report, according to The Los Angeles Times. The neighbor persisted, contacting the Smart family and the San Luis Obispo Police Department (SLOPD).
On Monday, May 27, 1996, Denise’s phone rang. It was a UPD officer asking if the freshman was home with her family.
According to the FBI, UPD took a missing persons report on May 28, three days after anyone last saw her. In the report, Kristin’s roommate, Crystal Calvin, said none of her personal belongings were missing from their residence hall room. Those included her identification, toiletries, clothing and other personal items. There is no evidence Kristin ever made it back to her room.
“A missing, overdue person, especially of college age, is not that unusual,” San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said. “Oftentimes, they stay overnight or don’t report to their friends what they’re doing, where they’re going.”
California Penal Code 14211(a) says, “All local police and sheriff’s departments shall accept any report, including any telephonic report, of a missing person, including runaways, without delay, and shall give priority to the handling of these reports over the handling of reports relating to crimes involving property.”
Many have criticized Cal Poly’s early investigations. When UPD first looked into Kristin’s disappearance, they did not ask for help from other local law enforcement agencies. Some community members criticized this decision and claim it could have destroyed chances of finding her body.
“This is a classic example of the system failing so badly on the campus that all key evidence on the case has been lost,” Sacramento political consultant Terry Black said to the Mustang Daily in 2006. “They always denied that (the system’s failing) because it exposes them legally and it exposes their lack of ability to protect their students.”
Cal Poly responded to these accusations in an email last week, saying, “Since Kristin’s disappearance in 1996, Cal Poly has continued to work closely with local law enforcement officials as they investigate the matter. As the criminal investigation is ongoing, the university cannot comment in further detail.”
In 1998, the Kristin Smart Campus Safety Act was made California law. The act requires public college campuses to create agreements with local law enforcement agencies that “clarify operational responsibilities for investigations of violent crimes.” Stan and Denise Smart lobbied for the legislation in the years after their daughter went missing in an attempt to change the system.
During the early investigations, Kristin’s father all but moved to San Luis Obispo. In an interview with Sacramento’s News 10 television station in 2011, Stan said he made the nearly 250-mile drive to the Central Coast more than 100 times to follow every incoming lead about his daughter’s whereabouts.
“I crawled through so many drainage pipes, over road passes,” he said.
Meanwhile, Denise said she stayed in Stockton by the phone, waiting for her daughter to call.
The only known suspect
Flores is the last known person to see Kristin. He is the only known suspect in the case, but investigators have never had enough evidence to charge him with a crime.
On May 30, five days after Kristin went missing, UPD investigators interviewed Flores, asking him to describe the last time he saw Kristin.
“She walked that way, I walked that way,” Flores told investigators. “That’s the last time I saw her.”
Flores, who had been facing academic challenges, dropped out of Cal Poly shortly after Kristin disappeared.
Flores had a record with law enforcement before the disappearance. In December 1995, SLOPD received a call from a female student at approximately 1 a.m. The student told dispatchers that a drunken Flores had climbed onto her balcony and refused to leave. He left before officers arrived.
Flores has been convicted for driving under the influence four times. March of 1996 marked his first DUI arrest in San Luis Obispo County. He lost his license. He was charged with driving a vehicle while impaired by alcohol or drugs on three subsequent occasions: in 1999, 2000 and 2005.
A black eye
During his interview with UPD on May 30, investigators noticed Flores had a black eye. He said he had been elbowed playing basketball.
A friend of Flores told investigators the black eye had been there Sunday, the day before the basketball game. He asked Flores what happened.
“I don’t know how I got the black eye,” the friend said, quoting Flores. “I just woke up with it.”
“Why 2 in the morning?” investigators asked.
“‘I was installing my radio, cause I (was) selling my truck,” he said.
Flores told investigators he hadn’t admitted to hitting his eye on the steering wheel before because it “doesn’t sound like a very likely thing.”
The Smart family’s lawyer, James R. Murphy Jr., said, “(Kristin) was seen at a party. She was with Paul Flores. He had injuries on his body consistent with an altercation. He lied about what occurred.”
More than a month after Kristin was last seen, investigators turned to members from the California Rescue Dog Association (CARDA). Four cadaver dogs, trained to search for human remains, arrived on campus on June 29, 1996, according to FBI documents.
Each dog searched Santa Lucia Hall individually. The door to room 128 — the room assigned to Flores — remained open during the search. Each of the dogs alerted to room 128. Furthermore, each dog alerted to the corner of the mattress assigned to Flores. Investigators said the dogs showed no interest in the other mattress or any other parts of the room. Flores earlier told investigators the bed was his.
CARDA dog handler Madela Morris told investigators the human body begins to decompose the moment a person dies, and the cadaver dogs can detect the physiological changes that take place. She said the dogs’ alerts on June 29 indicated a strong possibility that a dead body had been in room 128.
UPD told investigators their records indicated no deaths had ever occurred in that room. The same day the cadaver dogs searched the residence hall, investigators collected the mattress as evidence.
Murphy keeps track of cases involving cadaver dogs, hoping one day to use their findings as evidence against Flores.
“I believe that that testimony, if it were admissible, coupled with the physical injuries to Paul Flores, consistent with a struggle the night before, coupled with the lies that he told law enforcement in an investigation of a disappearance of a young woman, add up to guilt,” Murphy said.
The FBI provided a document to the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office in June of 2000, which included some of the details in the case. In the report, FBI Special Agent John Schafer wrote, “Based on the information in this affidavit, Kristin Smart is deceased and either died in Paul Flores’ dormitory room or was placed there for an unknown period of time … Paul Flores is responsible for or has direct knowledge of Kristin Smart’s disappearance and/or death.”
This is the first in a continuing series about Kristin Smart’s disappearance. Read the second installment here.