A California town is grappling with an unexpected update in the missing person case of Kristin Smart, a beloved college student who mysteriously vanished in 1996 after being walked home by a friend from an off-campus party.
Police in San Luis Obispo County briefly detained and then released that friend, the longtime person-of-interest in Smart's disappearance, spokesman Tony Cipolla told Inside Edition. The sheriff's office also issued four different search warrants in locations in California and Washington state, according to a Wednesday press release.
Here's what to know if you're just learning of the case that had all but gone cold for over two decades.
The Holiday Weekend Begins
On Friday, May 24, 1996, Smart and three of her friends left their dorm in search of a party to kick off the three-day Memorial Day weekend. Earlier that day, Smart had left a message telling her parents of the plans.
Smart was interested in attending a party at an off-campus fraternity. Her three friends didn't want to go, so they dropped her off a few blocks away and headed back to campus.
One of the friends, Margarita Campos, said she told Smart to be careful. She said Smart reassured her that she would be safe on her own because she likely knew many of the people there.
“I can still see her standing there after we dropped her off, a little mad, I think, that I wouldn’t go with her,” Campos told the San Luis Obispo Tribune.
Some witnesses have reportedly said that Smart was so inebriated after the party that she passed out in a nearby front lawn. Two partygoers, Cheryl Anderson and Tim Davis, noticed the tall blonde lying there, helped her to her feet and offered to help her back to her dorm.
As they headed back to campus, they ran into freshman Paul Flores, who volunteered to walk Smart the rest of the way home, according to police. Flores said he and Smart parted ways at the intersection of walkways leading to their respective dorms.
On May 30, 1996, Flores was brought in for an interview with Cal Poly investigators, the San Luis Obispo Tribune reported. At the time, he reportedly had a black eye, which he said he got from someone elbowing him during a basketball game.
Later, in a taped interview, Flores changed the story, explaining he got the shiner while fixing his truck, the Tribune reported.
A month later, cadaver dogs brought into the dorms also picked up the scent of a deceased human on the corner of Flores's mattress, the Stockton Record reported, citing unsealed search warrants. One of the dog handlers said the dog's alerts indicated a strong possibility that a dead body had been in the room.
Flores, who has long maintained his innocence, was never arrested or charged.
A Cold Case Picks Up Steam Again
Smart was declared "presumed dead" in 2002. However, the case made its way back into headlines in recent weeks.
In mid-January 2020, Kristin's mother Denise Smart said a retired agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation contacted her about her daughter's case and told her to stay tuned for news, the Stockton Record reported.
Then, in late January, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office said they had acquired as evidence in the case two trucks that belonged to family members of Paul Flores at the time of Smart's disappearance.
The sheriff's office confirmed in a Feb. 5 press release that it had served four different search warrants.
Also on Feb. 5, authorities were seen searching Flores' home in San Pedro and leaving the home of Flores' parents in Arroyo Grande with a computer, a paper bag, a storage bin and other pieces of evidence, the Tribune reported.
Although it's been nearly 25 years since Smart's disappearance, investigators still review the case regularly. Since 2011, they have collected over 100 pieces of new evidence, searched nine different locations, served 18 search warrants and conducted 91 face-to-face interviews, according to the sheriff's office.