It’s 2 a.m., early Saturday morning. You’re drunk and walking home from an off-campus party. The beat of the night’s music still rings in your ears while thoughts of upcoming midterms, essays and work days have momentarily floated from your mind. It’s only Saturday – you can stress about it tomorrow. For now you are perfectly content with simply making it home to your nice, safe bed in your nice, safe room. But what if something terrible happened and you never made it that far? What if the world started a new day – without you?
Kristin Denise Smart never made it to her room in Muir Hall on the morning of May 25, 1996. Almost 10 years later, her family and friends are still left without answers.
“To be honest we’re still pretty raw, but what keeps us going is our younger children, who aren’t young anymore, they’re old goats too,” said Smart’s mother, Denise Smart. “They were both Olympic-trial swimmers and graduated with honors, and both did what you never thought a family could do after something like this. The saddest part is we know Kristin is not here to share that with them. Nothing can change that. To have to deal with it for 10 years is like adding insult to injury.”
Smart left a party in the early hours of that Saturday with fellow students Cheryl Anderson and Tim Davis. Moments after the trio began their trek back from the party, which was just 75 yards away from Cal Poly, they were joined by Paul Flores. Davis and Anderson parted at separate intervals from the rest of the group and Flores continued alone with Smart. After that, the facts are fuzzy and Flores remains the only suspect.
“They use the term ‘she disappeared,’ which she did not, because she would have called us,” Denise Smart said. “She was not disconnected from her family. There were times she thought she didn’t make the right decision. What’s really special is she never gave up. She was the proverbial optimist. Like every other college freshman she had expectations and dreams.” Denise Smart emphasized how her daughter was just like other students in a new environment with new situations.
“The hardest part for the family is one, their daughter is still missing, and two, the idea of society moving on makes their skin crawl,” said Dennis Mahon, a friend of the Smart family.
Mahon sends this message to Cal Poly students and the community: “Burn this fact into your head and your natural heart will take over: Legal council for Paul Flores offered up a plea bargain to the state of California to take the charges down to an infraction (which is less then a misdemeanor) and they would lead investigators to Kristin’s body. Twice the Smarts have agreed to this, but have never heard back. If people can understand that plea bargain they can get fired up.”
Ten years, no body, no solutions, and no peace exist for the Smart family. Blame has been placed on the Cal Poly campus police and university officials for years. When the campus police first investigated the case, they did not share information or initially ask for help from the local police department – a move that some community members and family friends claim destroyed all chances of finding Smart’s body and bringing justice to a suspect.
“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. “That area is driven by the university itself and they have an undue influence over what goes on in that town. They always denied that (the system’s failing) because it exposes them legally and it exposes their lack of ability to protect their students.”
Black is convinced that, if given the right push, the informants will come forward. He is offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to the location of Smart.
“Nothing is going to be accomplished without a reward. Absolutely nothing has come of it and the family has suffered enough,” Black said. He added that anyone who speaks out with accurate information will be completely protected.
Many friends of the Smart family cite the lack of communication between campus and local police as a main reason why Smart was never found.
“The only reason this case is still pending is because the Cal Poly campus police went wrong. That’s it,” said Sharolette Wilson, a long-time Smart family supporter. “The single biggest reason is because of what Cal Poly did. There has never even been an apology from the campus police, and they have been arduous in their behavior. At some point the community needs to scream about this.”
“I am not aware that we have mishandled the case as the family has concluded, or suspected,” said Robert Detweiler, Cal Poly’s interim provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. He said there has never been an apology from the university to the Smart family because “we don’t know we did anything wrong.”
Detweiler will represent Cal Poly in upcoming interviews with other media outlets, such as the LA Times and The San Luis Obispo Tribune, as focus turns toward the 10th year since Smart’s disappearance. He began working at Cal Poly in 1998, and said he does not have any first-hand information about the Smart case, but learned from Mahon and faculty on campus about the incident.
“The most significant outcome of the case for us was to heighten our education programs with both WOW Week, to get the campus community and especially female students to take safety programs, and the SAFER program, which is attributed largely to the trauma the campus faced,” he said. SAFER stands for Sexual Assault Free Environment Resource program and is part of the Women’s Center program on campus.
SAFER will be donating approximately $500 to the Kristin Smart Point of Hope Overlook in Shell Beach. No memorial dedicated for her resides on campus, though discussions have circulated around the idea in past years, Detweiler said.
“By national standards this is quite a safe community,” he said. “But that doesn’t help you if you’re the family of a victim.” Detweiler understands that no matter how safe the community, incidences of this nature can and do occur.
“It’s a tragedy and I wish we could bring it to a close. We feel bad for Denise Smart and all her family,” he said. “I did go on behalf of the university to a remembrance service in Pismo Beach about five years ago, and I expressed our sorrow on our behalf.” He said Cal Poly tries its best to cooperate with every aspect of the case.
Bill Watton, Cal Poly’s chief of police, said student awareness and safety is a major focus for the campus police. “We aggressively go out and enforce alcohol violations,” Watton said. “Every sexual assault on this campus has been alcohol related.” Watton said a lack of experience and understanding of the effects of alcohol contributes to these incidences.
Watton was not part of the campus police force 10 years ago and said he is not aware of any members of his force that were. “It is quite different then it used to be,” he said.
Campus police must agree to report cases involving violent crimes and missing persons to the local authorities as a result of Smart’s case. The Kristin Smart Act, as the law is commonly referred to, went into effect Jan. 1, 1999. It was a direct result of the way Kristin Smart’s case was originally handled by campus authorities. Watton said his staff is not afraid to ask a neighboring agency for help.
Residential hall officers often put on skits and meetings to get information about safety out to incoming students. Watton said ways of dispersing information about personal safety to students is helpful, and encourages students to let him know of any ideas that can help his staff reach students in a better way.
“The most important thing is never travel anywhere without someone you know,” Denise Smart said. “The reality is we are all stronger together and do have to look out for each other. That one little thing would have saved Kristin’s life that night.”
The Kristin D. Smart Hope and Awareness Fun Run on Saturday is geared toward remembering Smart and conveying a message of safety to the entire community.
“The run means healing. It means awareness that these kinds of things can and do happen in the community,” Wilson said. “Come to the run, pay the fee, and participate; and while on the run think about what you can do as an individual to help. We can’t ever stop forgetting because these things do happen. The Smart family are people of great faith. They have a strong spiritual component to their family and that’s what has helped them over the years.”
Funds from the Fun Run go toward the Kristin Smart Point of Hope Overlook at Dinosaur Caves in Shell Beach. Community organizations, individuals and businesses are rallying together to support this cause.
Kennedy Club Fitness in Arroyo Grande will play host to a bounce house, live band, barbecue, raffle for the participants and other events to encourage family involvement and community awareness.
Denise Smart said she and her family will be present at the Fun Run. The event will take place at the New Hope Church parking lot in Arroyo Grande. Registration is open to everyone starting at 8:30 a.m. and the run starts at 9 a.m.
Smart may be gone, but not in the hearts and minds of her family and the people committed to sharing her story. Denise Smart sent a message to her daughter Kristin and the community as the 10-year mark approaches:
“Honey, we haven’t given up. We want to tell her that we love her and that we haven’t given up. She made things happen you would have never thought could happen. Remember those commercials that ask, ‘Do you know where your child is tonight?’ No one wants that for their child.”