A crowd of about 200 people gathered at the intersection of Crandall Way and Foothill Boulevard the evening of May 25 to honor the 25th anniversary of Cal Poly student Kristin Smart’s disappearance. Many people wore purple to show support and spread awareness of her story and walk the route Smart is believed to have walked the last night she was seen in 1996.
Smart was last seen walking home from an off-campus party. Paul Flores, the prime suspect in the case and the last person seen with her, is charged with her murder and is currently being held in San Luis Obispo County Jail without bail awaiting his preliminary hearings.
Chemistry junior Tessa Witkofsky organized the walk with the support of Denise Smart, Kristin Smart’s mother. Witkofsky started the walk at 6:30 p.m. on Crandall Way and ended in front of the University Union at the corner of North Perimeter Road and Grand Avenue She said she organized the walk to memorialize the last steps that Smart took on Cal Poly’s campus.
“It’s been dragged on for 25 years and there’s been so many mishaps, so that in itself makes it both intriguing and sad,” Witkofsky said. “And you just really want to support the family in any way you can, and that’s where I’m coming from.”
Video by Lauren Walike
Witkofsky reached out to both the Smart family and “Your Own Backyard” podcast host Chris Lambert to raise awareness and gain publicity for this event.
Within the past year, Kristin Smart’s case progressed with the arrests of both Paul and Ruben Flores back in April following the search of both their homes. Lambert said the recent search warrants carried out by the San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Department in April provided new information, especially once the charges were announced. But, Lambert said that the arrests were not the focus of the anniversary.
“This week in particular, just because it’s the 25th anniversary, it was already going to be a big week for Kristin’s story, but the timing of the arrests has been perfect,” Lambert said. “This last week has just been about remembering Kristin and celebrating with the Smart family and their friends.”
Everytime there’s a development in the case, Lambert alerts his 76,200 followers on his “Your Own Backyard” Instagram account.
The story of Smart’s disappearance gained both local and national interest within recent years due to Lambert’s podcast. Before his podcast, some students were unaware of who Kristin Smart was and what had happened to her.
Lambert reflected on the past few years about how far the case has progressed:
“We’ve come so far in the last five or six years where now you’d be lucky to find a single person on campus who doesn’t know her story or hasn’t heard of her name in the last year,” Lambert said.
The reach of Smart’s story can be seen through the many students and community members who attended the walk to celebrate and honor Smart’s memory.
“What it means for me to be at Kristin Smart’s walk is to be able to represent her and support her,” Alejandra Pinzon-Betancourt, mechanical engineering freshman said. “Also, to make sure that her name stays alive in the community because we need that coverage and awareness of her case.”
Mother and daughter, Teresa Nelson and Amanda Nelson, who both live in San Luis Obispo, attended the walk and have been following the case since Kristin Smart disappeared.
“I have lived here my entire life, and I remember when it happened and how scary it was,” Teresa Nelson said. “I have a young daughter, and I have been following the whole story since the beginning, and I want to see closure for her family and the community. She is everyone’s daughter at this point.”
Teresa Nelson’s daughter, Amanda Nelson, said that although this case has been open for 25 years, it remains fresh in the community’s minds.
“When it actually happened, it was horrifying,” San Luis Obispo resident Amanda Nelson said. “You never want to believe that can happen in your small community.”
Witkofsky said walking around Cal Poly’s campus reminds her of Smart’s story, which makes her think of her own safety when walking alone.
“In terms of safety, I’m definitely more precautious, especially at night,” Witkofsky said. “It saddens me that someone who also walked the same walks I did can just disappear one day. So, you know, it’s just kind of been an extra reminder to be careful and aware of surroundings and to use the buddy system.”
Safety on campus is a concern for other students as well. Computer engineering freshman Barry Pinzon-Betancourt, said she believes Cal Poly is safer now than in 1996, but that she is hyper-aware when walking alone at night.
“If I were by myself, then I would feel a little bit like I was walking around on eggshells and keeping aware of my surroundings,” Pinzon-Betancourt said.
For many, the focus of the walk was about keeping Smart’s memory alive, not about the fear of safety on Cal Poly’s campus.
“Her disappearance definitely left a big scar on the community,” Witkofsky said. “But she’s not [been] forgotten and there’s a whole community that supports [the Smart family] and that’s behind them and that cares.”
She is remembered by family and friends for her love of the beach, the color purple and a passion for communication, criminology, law and forensic science.
The Smart family visited San Luis Obispo over the weekend for the 25th anniversary and said in a statement that as part of the visit they used that time to thank friends in the area and those in law enforcement who “never gave up and continue today with steeled determination and effort to bring her home.”
In the 25 years since her disappearance, Smart’s case has never been labeled a “cold case,” which is an unsolved criminal case that is no longer being actively pursued because of a lack of evidence.
Smart’s case is often referred to as an active investigation and is still ongoing. Court proceedings continue for Paul Flores, facing murder charges, and Ruben Flores facing accessory to murder charges. 12-days of preliminary hearings are set to begin July 6. Both have pleaded not guilty.