SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif., Sept. 7 (UPI) — Federal and local authorities are digging at three different excavation sites in central California as part of a renewed search for a young college student who went missing more than 20 years ago.
Sheriff’s deputies, FBI agents and wildlife officials in San Luis Obispo, on California’s central coast, are searching for the remains of Kristin Denise Smart, the 20-year-old student of California Polytechnic State University who vanished without a trace in May 1996.
The new digging follows an announcement Tuesday by the FBI and San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday that they would be excavating new sites in search of the missing young woman.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the search is centered near the large “P” on the hillside overlooking the Cal Poly campus.
The San Luis Obispo Tribune cited an unnamed official as saying a new lead “strongly suggests” Smart may be buried there.
“After a comprehensive review of the Smart case, a lead was developed over the past two years that strongly suggested the remains of Kristin might be buried on the hillside near the Cal Poly ‘P’ landmark,” sheriff’s spokesman Tony Cipolla said in a news release.
The renewed effort is the result of a new tip police received, officials said, although they have not yet detailed exactly what new information they have.
“The canines and other information led us to choose the three locations,” FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said.
Two Springer spaniels and a German shepard mix led authorities to the three digging sites, officials noted. The dogs are from the bureau’s Quantico headquarters and are trained to pick up the scent of human decomposition.
“These specially trained FBI canines independently alerted on locations of interest in this area of campus,” Cipolla said.
“The campus was the last place Kristin was seen,” San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said near the digging sites. “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.”
Smart vanished after attending a party at an off-campus residence. Despite a massive search effort, which included K-9 units, helicopters and ground-penetrating radar, her body was not found. She was declared dead in 2002.
Authorities said the new digs are part of plans to search multiple sites, but additional locations have not yet been identified.
No one has ever been arrested in Smart’s disappearance but authorities said there remains at least one potential suspect in the case — the man who was last seen with an intoxicated Smart the night she vanished, walking her home after the party ended, according to witnesses.
The man, now referred to by authorities as a person of interest, has denied any involvement in or knowledge of Smart’s disappearance. He has been sued by Smart’s family in civil court and detectives reportedly liked him as the prime suspect, but never had enough evidence to charge him with a crime.
If Smart’s remains are eventually found, however, that could change.
In addition to the digging, authorities are still offering a $65,000 reward for information that cracks the case.
“The Sheriff’s Office has invested thousands of investigative hours and thousands of dollars for this case over the past five years,” Cipolla said. “It is our hope this will lead us to finding Kristin and bring closure to her family and to the community.”
Video: San Luis Obispo Tribune