A memorial honoring the lives of five San Luis Obispo women was held by the Cal Poly Women’s Center Monday night at Luna Cafe in San Luis Obispo. The memorial is the first in a string of events scheduled for Remember Week, which began on April 10 and runs through April 14.
“We’re trying to show that (these women) are not forgotten. These are just five women in our community that have been affected by sexual assault and we know that there are many, many more,” Women’s Center intern Rebeka Levin said.
The memorial is a quiet time for people to come and reflect about these women, sexual assault and the problem this issue poses for the community, coordinator Julia Sinclair-Palm said.
“I think a lot of times women and men don’t feel comfortable talking about sexual assault and this memorial really creates a safe space for them to do that,” she said.
“Sometimes we are met with a lot of resistance from people saying ‘This is a safe place, why do we need to talk about this?’” said Elizabeth Lucas, a fellow Women’s Center employee. “But people need to realize that things as extreme as rape and murder can happen here in San Luis Obispo.”
Kristin Smart. Rachel Newhouse. Aundria Crawford. Kristina Hogan. Laci Peterson. Each of these women had their lives cut short by sexual assault. Four of their bodies have been found, and the men responsible for their deaths have been charged and imprisoned.
However, one of the women has yet to be found. This is her story.
On the eve of May 25, 1996 Cal Poly freshman Kristin Smart went to a party. Spring quarter was drawing to a close, and the 19-year-old decided to celebrate the end of her first year in college at a friend’s birthday party. But, as police reports from all over San Luis Obispo County and the Internet show, Smart did not return for a second year.
But she didn’t go home either.
Today, the girl who, according to The Cal Poly Women’s Center, was described by a friend as having, “a wide, slow smile; a low, confident voice; a compassionate smile; a lanky walk. She is intensive sunshine; sparkling, brown eyes; the sunset on the beach” is still missing.
Today she watches over the city of Arroyo Grande; her shy, chestnut eyes gazing from a large “reward” billboard posted outside the law office of James R. Murphy on East Branch Street. Murphy, along with his fellow law partners and wife Garin Murphy, has been looking for the young swimmer for almost a decade.
Once vividly strong in the minds of Central Coast residents, the case has become more of a memory among Cal Poly students and locals alike. And as it nears the 10-year mark, the bitter taste left by Smart’s disappearance has become harder to forget.
“I was little when it happened, probably about eight, right?” said Krista Overholtzer, a waitress at the Old Village Grill in downtown Arroyo Grande. “I remember always seeing the billboard when we drove to Lake Lopez.”
“And I remember when they were digging up the porch at the house down the street. At the time, I didn’t know what they were doing, but now I know it was because they were looking for her body,” the 19-year-old Nipomo High School graduate said.
“It’s really scary to know that you could disappear and no one would know what happened to you,” she said.
Smart was reported missing by her parents shortly after the night of the party. University police, however, were slow to respond to the case because the department believed the “troubled girl” had run away, Murphy said.
“They thought, because it was so close to the end of the quarter, that she had left without telling anyone where she was going,” senior Kara Groth, an employee at The Cal Poly Women’s Center, said.
Reports that she was unhappy at school led police to think that maybe she ran away with her boyfriend. But Smart didn’t have a boyfriend.
“Kristin was going through some changes at school; she was having trouble keeping up in her classes . . . She wanted to quit,” said Murphy, the office manager of her husband’s practice. “She had even dyed her blonde hair brown and she wanted the kids on campus to call her Roxie.”
“But she was really excited the last night her mom talked to her because she found out that her professor was going to let her retake a test that she had bombed,” Murphy said.
“Kristin knew she was unconditionally loved. She was never estranged from her family,” she said. “They knew she didn’t run away . . . Her family knew she would never do that to her little brothers and her parents.”
Six months after her disappearance, her family hired the Murphys and partner Tana Coates to further investigate the case. The law office, with help from the surrounding Central Coast community, set out to find the striking, 6-foot swimmer.
The exact details of Smart’s last night on campus are still uncertain. However, with the help of witnesses and outside sources, both police and the family’s lawyers have managed to piece together an idea of what happened.
Smart arrived at the party around midnight “stone cold sober,” Murphy said. She stayed there for two hours until a classmate, Cheryl, found her passed out on the front lawn. She recognized Smart and managed to get her up and walking. With the help of another friend named Tim, Cheryl planned to walk back to the dorms.
According to files kept by the Women’s Center, shortly afterward, Tim and Cheryl reported that another student, Paul Flores, “just sort of ‘appeared out of nowhere’ and offered to walk back to the dorms with them. At the time it seemed like no big deal and the walk continued along Crandall Way.”
Tim parted ways with the group at Perimeter Avenue and headed in another direction. Flores, Cheryl and Smart continued to walk the 100 yards up to the dorms.
At Grand and Perimeter, Cheryl needed to break off and walk up Grand Avenue to her dorm at Sierra Madre. She later said she was nervous about leaving Flores alone with Kristin, Groth said.
“He was supposedly acting really inappropriately toward Kristin, talking to her and fondling her,” Groth said, “at least enough for Cheryl to say ‘hey, what’s going on?’”
She made Flores promise to walk Smart all the way to her dorm, Groth said, and Flores said he would. This was the last time she was seen alive.
News of Smart’s mysterious disappearance following that early morning walk across campus began a slow-but-steady search for the Cal Poly freshman. Not surprisingly, police, the university and Smart’s family expected all the answers to her whereabouts to lay with Flores. But Flores’s answers didn’t seem to add up.
“His testimony was very inconsistent,” Murphy said.
Also, Flores was later documented by the Arroyo Grande Police Department as having a black eye and scratches on his knuckles when he went in to be booked with driving under the influence. The booking photograph was taken four to five days after Smart’s disappearance, Murphy said.
“I don’t think that Paul intended to kill her. I think he ended up strangling her, or she aspirated in her own vomit, and . . . at some point she fought back,” Murphy said, adding that Flores did have some kind of rage problem stemming from childhood, which has been documented at his middle school in Pasadena.
The Sheriff’s Department, however, released Flores, insisting that the case was still open.
“The only information that I can give (the public) is contained on the Sheriff Department’s Web site. I cannot comment further on the case due to the fact that it is an on-going case,” said Sgt. Brian Haskel, the department’s public information officer.
Flores, according to the Web site, has said that he separated from Kristin near his dorm room, and reported that she walked the short distance to her room alone. But Kristin did not return to her room and has not contacted family or friends since that time. She did not have identification, money or extra clothing with her when she disappeared.
Still many people complain that the investigation was (and continues to be) marred by a lack of concrete evidence because of the way the university police handled the alleged crime scene and Flores’s initial interrogation, Murphy said.
“Cal Poly ordered him to take everything out of his room,” she said, adding that in doing so, any sort of DNA evidence was destroyed.
“Cal Poly police aren’t trained in homicide,” she said.
Currently, most of the people involved with the case have since retired from the University Police Department, Interim Chief Bill Watton said.
“It’s a tragic case,” he said, adding that the UPD is “still hopeful that someone will step forward with information that might lead to a conclusion of the case and hopefully an arrest.”
Since then, the San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Department has come up with multiple leads for the 10-year-old case. But still, the case remains unsolved and Smart continues to be listed as a “missing person.” And many people in the community, including the Smarts and their lawyers, consider Flores the main suspect in the young woman’s murder.
“I can’t tell you how many times we thought we were going to find her,” Murphy said, adding that she and her co-workers have never expected to find Smart alive. “The things we really want to know most now is where she is and how she died.”
Representation for the Flores family could not be reached for this article, and Flores himself continues to plead the Fifth Amendment in answering any and all questions concerning Smart’s disappearance. According to police documents, the 30-year-old has been arrested and charged with three D.U.I.’s.
“My biggest fear, since he drinks and drives, is that he’s going to kill himself and all the secrets about Kristin and her whereabouts are going to be buried with him,” Murphy said.
Many people in the area have the exact same mindset when remembering the tall blonde student from Cal Poly who went missing more than a decade ago.
“I absolutely cannot imagine the grief that (her parents) have gone through because they don’t even have a body,” Cheryl Howell, a criminal justice student at Hancock college and mother of five-year-old Destiny Howell, said.
“I feel so sorry for her family because to have the answers right there in front of you and no one going forward and looking for them must be the hardest thing in the world,” she said.