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Search for Kristin Smart's remains on Cal Poly hillside yields items of interest in 1996 disappearance

Search for Kristin Smart's remains on Cal Poly hillside yields items of interest in 1996 disappearance
A team of FBI agents and San Luis Obispo County sheriff's deputies excavates a hillside above Cal Poly as part of the investigation into the disappearance of student Kristin Smart two decades ago. (David Middlecamp / Associated Press)

FBI agents digging into a hillside half a mile from where Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student Kristin Denise Smart was last seen alive 20 years ago have found "items of interest" in the cold case mystery, authorities said Thursday.

Tony Cipolla, a spokesman for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department, said, "We have found items of interest" at the first of three excavation sites where FBI agents are working.

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"We are not disclosing what those items are at this point," he said. "They are being analyzed to see if they are related to this investigation."

Beneath the "P" on a sign that stands for Cal Poly, agents searched for Smart's remains or the tiniest clue to help them figure out what happened to the freshman.

The Central Coast's most famous cold case took a new turn this week when FBI agents and San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson announced the excavation plans. They said they picked the locations based on a lead they had developed and because three FBI dogs trained to detect human decomposition "alerted" in those areas.

Cipolla said the dig will extend into Friday, but details of what is found may not be disclosed.

"Ultimately it will be up to the sheriff to make a determination if we release that information to the public because we have a criminal investigation that is ongoing and the sheriff does not want to jeopardize that case," he said.

The 25 agents on hand must filter every grain of soil in selected areas, setting aside any items that might be potential clues, said Tom Brenneis, an FBI special agent and the search's team leader.

The team will search an area 90 feet in radius from each of the locations indicated by the dogs during a search last January. "If we don't find anything, we can know we left no stone unturned," Brenneis said.

Heavy equipment is being used to pull the dirt from the ground, where it is taken to a hard deck for agents to turn over with rakes and shovels.  Anything of potential value, even what might seem like trash, will be examined, Brenneis said.

Authorities say the new lead came after a detective on the case conducted a comprehensive review.

Smart disappeared on the way home from an off-campus party May 25, 1996.  Searches were conducted with helicopters, horses and ground-penetrating radar to no avail. She was presumed dead.

Stan and Denise Smart, Kristin's parents, released a statement Wednesday expressing cautious optimism about the new search.

"We are encouraged and hopeful for the new developments in Kristin's case. We have been hoping, praying and waiting for the last 20 years for the return of our daughter," the statement said. "While the road has been difficult beyond words, our hopes were rekindled when Sheriff Parkinson took office."

The Smarts said they were "confident that the 'person of interest' will soon be held accountable."

That person of interest has been identified by Parkinson as Paul Flores, a fellow student who was seen with Smart as she walked toward the dorms that night.

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Smart's family has sued Flores in civil court, but he has not been criminally charged. In response to the Smart family's suit, Flores denied "both generally and specifically each and every allegation" raised against him. He invoked his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination before a grand jury and a civil deposition.

Smart, who was 19 when she disappeared, was officially declared dead in 2002.

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