On a dry hillside half a mile from the place on the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus where Kristin Denise Smart was last seen alive 20 years ago, a specialized FBI team on Wednesday began to sift through 20,000 cubic feet of dirt.
Beneath the "P" on a sign that stands for Cal Poly, agents searched for her remains or the tiniest clue to help them figure out what happened to the freshman.
The area where agents are concentrating looks part construction site, part archaeological dig. A massive excavator will aid the search of three areas on the steep terrain near the dormitories. The 25 agents on hand must filter every grain of soil — the equivalent of about five big-rig trailer loads — setting aside any items that might be potential clues,said Tom Brenneis, an FBI special agent and the search's team leader.
"We would love to find human remains in this place, but we have to take care of the small stuff as well," he said.
The Central Coast's most famous cold case took a new turn this week when the FBI and San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson announced the excavation plans. They said they picked the locations based on a lead they developed and on the activities of three FBI dogs trained to detect human decomposition.
The team will slice out 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 pulls 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 treated as an item in an archaeological dig, Brenneis said.
Authorities say the new lead came after a lead detective on the case conducted a comprehensive review.
Smart disappeared on the way home from an off-campus party on May 25, 1996. Searches were conducted with helicopters, horses and ground-penetrating radar to no avail. She was presumed dead.
As of Wednesday afternoon, investigators had not identified anything definitely tied to the investigation. Brenneis said the search would continue through Friday. If anything was found, he said, it likely would go back to the FBI labs for analysis before any definitive statements were made.
Stan and Denise Smart, Kristin's parents, released a statement Wednesday expressing cautious optimism. "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. "And 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 her as she walked toward the dorms that night.
The sheriff said investigators had not talked recently to Flores. 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.