Two decades have passed since a warm May night when Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student Kristin Denise Smart vanished after an off-campus party.
Her disappearance sparked a massive manhunt, with searchers using helicopters, horses and an army of volunteers, and even ground-penetrating radar. She was never found and was presumed dead.
The cold case took a new twist Tuesday when the FBI and the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department announced they were excavating at three sites on a hillside near the dormitories. The search is centered on the giant "P" in a hillside sign that stands for Cal Poly. Officials said they picked the locations based on the activities of human decomposition dogs.
"The campus was the last place Kristin was seen," Sheriff Ian Parkinson said near the dig. "Due to its high visibility, we really decided it was best to go ahead and disclose why we are here…. We will not give up to find Kristin."
Sheriff's investigators along with a specialized FBI team will spend four days digging up three sites. Parkinson said it was one of several locations to be examined but declined to discuss other places at this time.
Smart's disappearance captivated San Luis Obispo. But it remains unclear whether this week's dig will prove the break in the case that for years eluded authorities.
Officials were vague about what new information they might now have. Tony Cipolla, a sheriff's spokesman, said only that a tip led them to the area.
"The canines and other information led us to choose the three locations," FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller added.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Sean Ragan said the dogs, two Springer spaniels and a German shepard mix, keyed in on the three areas after being brought to the site from the FBI's Quantico facility. The dogs trained at Civil War battlegrounds and can find the scent of human decomposition, officials said.
Smart's family released a statement Wednesday saying they are cautiously optimistic about the developments.
"We are encouraged and hopeful for the new developments in Kristin's case. We have been hoping, praying and waiting for the last twenty years for the return of our daughter. And while the road has been difficult beyond words; our hopes were rekindled when Sheriff Parkinson took office," the statement said.
Investigators will dig about 3 feet down in the locations. The team consists of 25 FBI agents, 15 sheriff's detectives and California Department of Fish & Wildlife agents.
The sheriff said investigators have not talked to Paul Flores, the man last seen with Smart. But Parkinson on Tuesday said he remains a person of interest in Smart's disappearance.
Smart's family has sued Flores in civil court, but he was not charged criminally in relation to the case. In response to the Smart family's suit, Flores denied "both generally and specifically each and every allegation" raised against him.
Smart was officially declared dead in 2002.
Parkinson said that he understands the community needs answers but emphasized that expectations need to be managed in solving Smart's disappearance. It's a case with no body and no crime scene.
Smart's face still appears on a billboard in nearby Arroyo Grande, and her family has explored thousands of leads over the years in their search for the lean, 6-foot-1, high-cheekboned student. On May 25, 1996, the day she vanished, she wore a short-cropped T-shirt, running shorts and red athletic shoes.
Sometime after 5:30 p.m. on May 24, Smart left a message on her mother's telephone, reporting, happily, that she would be allowed to make up a biology test that somehow had been lost earlier in the year.
About 8:30 p.m, Smart and three companions were on their way from the dorms, a staggered row of brick and concrete buildings set against a steep incline known as Poly Hill. They grabbed a ride in a truck to the unofficial fraternity house near the campus. Her friends did not want to go to the party, so they dropped her off a couple of blocks away. It was around 10 p.m. None of the women had been drinking.
Tim Davis, a senior who helped stage the party, would tell investigators that he was shooing away the last stragglers about 2 a.m. when he spotted the tall girl later identified as Smart sprawled on a lawn next door, apparently passed out. He roused her. She was in no condition to walk home alone.
Davis and Cheryl Anderson were going to walk her home when Flores, a 19-year-old from the nearby town of Arroyo Grande, volunteered to help. She was last seen walking home with him, authorities said.
Detectives have long called Flores a suspect but said they lacked the evidence to charge him. At one point early in the investigation, San Luis Obispo County district attorney's officials interviewed Flores. As the investigators pressed him, he pulled his arms into his T-shirt, scrunched over at the waist in his chair and lifted his feet off the floor, as if moving toward a fetal position, records show.
"If you are so smart," he demanded, "then tell me where the body is."
Later, Flores invoked his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination before a grand jury and during a civil deposition. Flores could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Tuesday's search is far from the first effort to close this cold case.
Investigators have searched Flores' parents' home, a family rental property and numerous points on the Cal Poly campus over the years.
Officials said a $65,000 reward remain available for information to crack the case. Digging is expected to begin in earnest on Wednesday.
1:02 p.m.: Updated with family statement.
8:15 a.m. Sept. 7: This article has been updated with reward and other information.
7:50 p.m.: This article was updated with comment from a Sheriff's spokesman.