Cal Poly’s president has issued a public apology to Kristin Smart’s family for the way the San Luis Obispo university handled the investigation into the murdered woman’s disappearance more than two decades ago.
It’s the first time Cal Poly has publicly taken accountability for its role in the missteps that occurred in the Smart case.
“We recognize, even though I wasn’t here, that Cal Poly could have done things differently,” President Jeffrey Armstrong told The Tribune in an exclusive phone interview Thursday. “There were things that we do differently now. There are things that should have been done differently. And for that, I’m sorry.”
Thursday marked the 27th anniversary of Smart’s disappearance — a day her parents say is a reminder of the pain they’ve endured at the hands of Cal Poly and the family of Smart’s killer, Paul Flores.
Smart was a 19-year-old freshman when she went missing after an off-campus party during Memorial Day weekend in 1996.
She was last seen with Flores, who was convicted of her murder in October — more than two decades after the crime. The San Pedro man is currently serving a sentence of 25 years to life in North Kern State Prison.
At the time their daughter vanished, Kristin Smart’s parents, Stan and Denise Smart, believe Cal Poly leadership at the time did not take her disappearance seriously.
Because of this, they say, Flores was free for 25 years despite being the prime suspect in the case.
Cal Poly police declined to take a missing person’s report when Kristin’s friends first reported her missing, her friends said in court.
When the university police department did take one two days later, Cal Poly police told Stan and Denise Smart their daughter was probably camping.
But Kristin Smart’s essential belongings were left behind and she wasn’t the type of person to leave without letting someone know her location her parents said at the time. Why wasn’t this ringing alarm bells? they asked.
At the time, university police told the campus paper, The Mustang Daily, that they did not think Smart’s disappearance was related to a crime.
“We had girls telling us (Flores) was called Chester Molester, then we have these campus police saying he’s somebody you want to bring home to dinner,” Denise Smart told The Tribune. “I was like, ‘We’ve got a problem. We’re not making any progress here.’ “
Flores’ dorm room wasn’t treated as a possible crime scene. He was allowed to leave for the summer, and the room was cleaned.
Because the room was cleaned, Smart’s parents said, crucial forensic evidence was lost by the time the case was transferred to the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office a month after Smart disappeared.
There wasn’t enough to arrest Flores, and he remained free for 25 years.
The Smart family still doesn’t know where Kristin’s body is.
“Paul Flores took Kristin’s life,” Denise Smart said. “Cal Poly took ours.”
If Cal Poly had “treated Kristin like a human being” and investigated the case with urgency, the Smarts believe, then Flores would have been arrested much sooner and they would have been able to properly bury their daughter.
“I can’t imagine the pain Kristin’s family has felt and still feels,” Armstrong said Thursday. “What they’ve been through is just unbelievably heartbreaking,”
About a decade after Kristin Smart went missing, the university offered to erect a memorial to her on campus, but it came with conditions the Smarts said they couldn’t agree to.
Cal Poly told Smart’s parents that the university would memorialize Kristin Smart on campus only if the family absolved Cal Poly of any wrongdoing, the parents said. The university also reserved the right to sue the family if they spoke out against the university, and the family would have to help finance it.
Armstrong told the Tribune he was not aware of the negotiation as it was before his tenure, but did not deny that it happened.
He said he has been in talks with the family to honor Smart on campus, adding that he would never suggest the Smart family should trade a memorial to their daughter for silence.
Cal Poly has taken steps to rectify the situation with the Smart family privately, Armstrong said, and has taken several steps to prevent a situation like the mishandling of Smart’s disappearance from happening again.
Cal Poly “will never be able to control an individual with bad intent when they decide to do something this heinous,” the university president said, but added there are extensive public safety services available for students, employees and visitors on campus.
According to Armstrong, the university abides by the Clery Act, which requires universities to publicly report crime on campus when it happens.
It also follows the Kristin Smart Campus Safety Act of 1998, a law championed by Stan and Denise Smart that requires universities to have a written agreement with local law enforcement about how certain violent crimes are investigated.
Cal Poly police officers receive Title IX training, he said, and provide education and preventative outreach on campus.
Cal Poly Safer , which was created in response to Kristin Smart’s disappearance, provides advocacy, resources and training workshops for sexual misconduct, domestic violence and stalking.
“We just can’t let anything like this happen again,” Armstrong said.