The Mustang Daily, Cal Poly’s student newspaper, published their first story about Kristin Smart on May 31, 1996, reporting her disappearance. University Archives | Courtesy

Phil Bailey has seen many things happen during his 53-year tenure at Cal Poly: the changing of Cal Poly’s name as California Polytechnic State University, the opening of the Robert E. Kennedy Library and the 1990 Poly Royal riots.

But one aspect of Cal Poly’s history that has been on his mind for the past 26 years is the disappearance and murder of former Cal Poly student Kristin Smart.

Smart was a freshman at Cal Poly when she went missing while walking to her dorm from an off-campus party on May 25, 1996. She was last seen with Paul Flores, another Cal Poly student, and was reported to be heavily intoxicated. 

Paul Flores and his father Ruben Flores were arrested in April of 2021 and have been charged with the murder and accessory to the murder of Smart, respectively. After a preliminary hearing held in San Luis Obispo, the trial has been moved to Monterey County and is scheduled to begin May 31.

For Bailey, one of the longest employed faculty members at Cal Poly, Smart’s disappearance was a catalyst for changes regarding student safety at Cal Poly.

After 26 years, the story of Smart is still alive in San Luis Obispo. Billboards with her face can be found throughout the county, her name is frequently found in headlines and news stories and with an impending trial for her murder, Smart’s name echoes through the community.

For many students on campus, these are the only ways they learn about Smart, a person who was legally declared dead in 2002 before some students were born.

However, there is a group of about 57 faculty members that were employed at Cal Poly when news struck that Smart was missing, and still work on campus to this day.

When they first found out

Bailey began teaching as an assistant professor at Cal Poly for the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in 1969. He later became the dean of the College of Science and Mathematics in 1983, and it was while he held that position in May of 1996 that he said he learned of a student “unaccounted for.”

That student was Kristin Smart.

Bailey said that it took a couple of days to hear about her disappearance, probably early in the week following her disappearance when he read about it in the newspapers and heard it on the radio.

“It was really, really of a concern to the campus and it really influenced to some extent how we did things for a while,” Bailey said. “It shook the campus.”

Biological sciences emeritus professor Chris Kitts was in his first year teaching at Cal Poly and said that he wasn’t paying much attention to the campus community due to the workload of a new professor, but he said he still remembers a feeling of worry that ensued on campus.

The Mustang Daily, Cal Poly’s student newspaper, published their first story about Kristin Smart on May 31, 1996,
reporting her disappearance. University Archives | Courtesy

Like Bailey, Kitts said he first found out about a missing student via local news, as well as hearing about it across campus. The same was for music professor Alyson McLamore, who first read about Smart’s disappearance in the Tribune and heard conversations in the hallways about it the Thursday and Friday after she was reported missing.

Kitts said that many conversations were held among faculty concerning the safety on campus in the wake of a missing student. These conversations carried beyond campus, as Kitts said Smart would be discussed at faculty social gatherings as well.

To Kitts, the disappearance and murder of Smart was the beginning of a new awareness on campus.

“From my perspective, since I just got here, it felt like a turning point,” Kitts said.

Like many other professors told Mustang News, McLamore said that not much information was released regarding Smart’s disappearance which led to suspicions and rumors wafting through campus.

“I can’t say [the campus reaction] was horror, it was more puzzlement,” McLamore said. “You know, ‘this is strange, this is weird, I wonder where she’s gone.’”

Issues of safety

Prior to coming to the Central Coast, psychology professor Laura Freberg had spent much of her life in city environments. She grew up in Los Angeles, but later moved to New Haven and New York City in the 1970s. She described New Haven at the time as a “war zone” and everyone she knew in New York City had been mugged.

Freberg said that she “never quite lost that city girl,” even after moving to San Luis Obispo to teach at Cal Poly in 1985. To this day, she said she is more cautious because of her city experiences.

While she said that living in San Luis Obispo is much safer than the urban war zones she described living in, she still never felt completely safe when walking on Cal Poly’s campus at night.

“So you have these kinds of instinctive, burnt into your soul safety things, but I still don’t like being at Cal Poly at night,” Freberg said. “I never have.”

What makes Cal Poly feel unsafe for Freberg is how dark the campus is at night and its remoteness.

Kitts said that the concern for safety on campus at night is something that still pervades the campus.

“[Smart’s] story does get brought up when we’re talking about doing things late at night,” Kitts said. “I think everybody sort of has that on the back of their mind.”

While Freberg has always felt unsafe on campus, San Luis Obispo has had a reputation of being a safe town, yet Freberg said that San Luis Obispo’s tendency to brush safety issues aside and Cal Poly’s need to “maintain this elusive safety” has been a hindrance to the conversations surrounding student safety and the true experiences of students.

She said that after Kristin Smart’s disappearance, Cal Poly student Rachel Newhouse was raped and murdered by Rex Krebs in 1998, who was later found guilty for the abduction, rape and murder of Newhouse and Cuesta College student Aundria Crawford. Freberg said that prior to discovering Newhouse, missing posters for her were posted all over Cal Poly’s campus. Right before open house, though, all the posters were removed. She said she does not know who removed them.

“Because heaven forbid that we express any kind of dismay about our safety to the incoming students and their parents,” Freberg said. “I think in dealing with a situation [of student safety], hopefully they don’t come up, but if they do, I think we owe it to everybody to be a little more sensitive to kind of honoring our community.”

Aerospace engineering professor Faysal Kolkailah said that it is important that the university establishes safety measures for its students, such an increased presence of police walking on campus.

“Life is very, very, very, very important,” Kolkailah said. “We shouldn’t really do anything short from making sure that we are protecting the life, the honor, the dignity of our students… Our students on campus should be able to feel safe walking [on campus].”

Several students read, study and chat in the common room of a red brick residence hall circa 1987. Kristin Smart
lived in Muir residence hall, one of the red bricks, when she attended Cal Poly. University Archives | Courtesy

Industrial and manufacturing professor Tao Yang said that one way Cal Poly can increase their safety measures is by implementing cameras on campus. Camera surveillance on campus is one way to help solve crimes, Yang said, and the university should learn from Smart’s case and the lack of surveillance of her disappearance.

“How much time money and energy were wasted?” Yang said.

He suggested that students advocate for such measures for their safety, like cameras and increased lighting, utilizing Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) to enact the change.

“Let the students decide where to put the lights or cameras,” Yang said. “It’s a student campus. Students should have more voices to speak up.”

Professors taking safety into their own hands

Kolkailah has been working at Cal Poly since 1984 and has had three daughters attend Cal Poly. He said that whenever they were studying on campus late at night, he ensured that either he would be there to walk them to their cars or make sure someone else would do it. 

But Kolkailah’s diligence for safety did not just extend to his daughters. 

To him, all of his students over the past 38 years are his grandkids, and with that is his desire to ensure their safety as well.

“All of the kids at Cal Poly [are] my daughters or my sons,” Kolkailah said. “I’m 73 years old, so I look at all my students as grandkids. I wouldn’t let any of my grandkids, at home or at school, walk alone from the library to their car at night.”

Bailey and his wife Christina Bailey, faculty and chair emeritus in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, housed over 20 unrepresented and low-income Cal Poly students after their own four children left the house.  When Smart disappeared, they were hosting two young women and had a heightened concern for their safety.

“When she went out I said, ‘you be careful and I want to know where you are,’” Bailey said.

He said that his concern, like Kolkailah, also extended to his students. Although he had always been concerned with his students’ safety, the disappearance of Smart increased it.

“In my lab, I went around, especially to all the women in [the] lab, and I said, ‘do you have a safe way home?’ And if they didn’t, I either took them home or paired them up with somebody,” Bailey said. “But it was scary. I mean, we didn’t want anything to happen to anyone else.”

Like Bailey and Kolkailah, many professors echoed the same piece of advice for their students: never walk alone, especially when it’s dark.

Kristin’s impact

For Kolkailah, remembering the early moments of the Smart case is not hard.

“How can you forget that?” Kolkailah said. “And as I said, it makes me even more worried about my grandkids and my kids at home here and also on campus. I worry about the students I’m teaching that something can happen to them, boys or girls. Now, that’s not a good feeling.”

Smart’s disappearance is something that’s weighed on Kolkailah over the past 26 years.

“We lost this beautiful young lady,” Kolkailah said. “My heart goes for her parents, her family, her loved ones. I’m not kidding, sometimes I get tears in my eyes.”

Bailey, too, said that Smart’s disappearance is something that has been on his mind for the past 26 years. During his tenure, he said her disappearance has led to an increased awareness on campus, and the lack of resolution for her case has kept her name alive.

“I can just tell you that 25-26 years later, most of us [Kristin Smart is] at the front of our minds,” Bailey said. “How can we have not gotten her back?”