Hot Pursuit

Denise Smart looks longingly at a sketch of Kristin, her older daughter, whom she hasn’t seen in 2½ years. “When you lose a child, there’s a period of grieving, and then you come to a place of peace,” she says. “But when you have a missing child, you don’t get that. There is no end. It doesn’t get any better.”

The Stockton, Calif., woman and her family—her husband, son and younger daughter—have lived with that sense of incompleteness ever since Kristin, a vivacious, athletic 19-year-old, disappeared from the campus of California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo after a late-night party on Memorial Day weekend in May 1996. Following initial interviews with investigators, the only identified suspect in her disappearance, former fellow student Paul Flores, now 22, has refused to talk. So Denise, an educator, and her husband, Stan, a high school principal, have taken matters into their own hands. They and some two dozen supporters have hounded Flores—legally, but without respite—making whoever hires him aware of his role in the case and keeping him under near-constant surveillance. Their goal: to persuade Flores to tell police where Kristin can be found. “All we want is her body,” says Denise, 52. “We’re not eye-for-an-eye people. I don’t think we’re asking for anything more than any parent would.”

The Smarts’ frustration is understandable, says Flores’s lawyer Melvin de la Motte. But, he maintains, there is nothing to implicate his client in whatever happened to their daughter. (Flores and his family declined to speak to PEOPLE.) “It’s one thing to have suspicions,” de la Motte says, “but that doesn’t make up for evidence.”

The last time Denise Smart heard from Kristin was late on the afternoon of Friday, May 24, 1996. The freshman communications major left a message on her parents’ answering machine: “We’re going to a party at 8, so call me before that.” But Kristin left for the party, not far from her dorm, before hearing back.

According to witnesses, Kristin got drunk at the party and around 2 a.m. decided to head back to her dorm with a girlfriend. Freshman Paul Flores volunteered to walk them home. They reached the other woman’s dorm first, and Smart and Flores continued on. Later that day, Kristin failed to keep a lunch appointment with a friend, who subsequently phoned campus police.

Campus cops didn’t begin investigating in earnest until Tuesday, when classes resumed. When they questioned Flores, he had a black eye, which he claimed he had received in a basketball game. But one of his friends later told investigators that he had arrived at the game with it. As for his whereabouts after the party, Flores claimed he had walked Kristin to her dorm, then gone to his own.

Despite inconsistencies in Flores’s story, campus police believed they did not have enough evidence to seek a warrant to search his dorm room. Nearly five weeks passed before badgering from the Smarts prompted them to turn over the case to the San Luis Obispo sheriff’s department. By then the school year was over, and Flores had returned home to nearby Arroyo Grande. Sheriff’s investigators and four cadaver dogs (trained to detect the scent left by decomposing flesh) searched his dorm room. Each dog zeroed in on Flores’s mattress. But an October ’96 grand jury failed to indict Flores, and in a subsequent civil deposition he invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. (Legally he could continue to do so if subpoenaed in the future.)

“We don’t even have enough evidence to prove that a crime has occurred,” says Det. Sgt. Bill Wammock of the sheriff’s department, which still considers Smart a missing person. “We have circumstantial evidence that makes it look suspicious…but unfortunately circumstantial evidence does not get us a conviction or a judge to issue an arrest warrant.”

The Smarts’ crusade began about a month after Kristin’s disappearance. Persuading herself that some sort of accident had occurred and that Flores was too frightened to talk, Denise decided to phone his parents, Ruben, a telephone-company worker, and Susan, a real estate agent. “I thought I’d call them and say, ‘Something has happened to Kristin, and I’m sure your son is just paralyzed with fear,’ ” says Denise. “But whoever answered the phone didn’t want to talk. They just slammed the phone down as soon as I said my name.”

Next, the Smarts and their friends started a writing campaign, mailing hundreds of letters to Flores’s parents and other family members urging them—in vain—to persuade Flores to help investigators. (Once, the phone rang in Denise’s kitchen, and a voice said, “I’m calling on behalf of the Flores family. You can stop sending all those letters because we’re not reading them.”) “Nobody was accusatory,” Denise says. “At the time I was still in la-la land. I couldn’t imagine that someone could ever do something bad to our child.”

But slowly she began to believe otherwise, especially when the Smarts’ attorney Jim Murphy started telling them of incidents in which Flores had allegedly acted aggressively toward women. “Even the mention of his name makes my stomach flip,” says Fatima Martins, 24, who says she told investigators that Flores had tackled and groped her on two occasions in 1993 when they worked together at a burger joint. “He’s not a normal person,” agrees Tami Johnson, 24, a coworker who says she told police of a similar experience with Flores. “He was creepy.”

Because of what they viewed as foot-dragging by investigators—a charge the sheriff’s department and Cal Poly police vehemently deny—the Smarts decided to take a more active role. In November 1996 they filed a $40 million wrongful-death lawsuit against Flores, Cal Poly and the fraternity that had served Kristin alcohol. (For legal reasons, Flores has since been dropped from the suit, at least temporarily.) They also lobbied for a bill passed by the California legislature to permit swifter intervention by outside law enforcement when violent crimes occur on campus.

And the Smarts continue to monitor Flores’s whereabouts. Whenever Flores—who dropped out of Cal Poly the summer Kristin disappeared—gets a new job, his employer is flooded with letters and calls. When Flores moved to Southern California in September 1996 and began working, in turn, at a video store, a restaurant and a fast-food franchise, he lost his job each time. When he tried to join the Navy in October ’96, recruiters were alerted, and his application was turned down.

“I think some people would call that harassment,” says Flores’s lawyer de la Motte, who nonetheless has advised his client against suing. “All it would do is create more animosity.” Still, many observers are troubled by the Smarts’ campaign. “I think when the police don’t have a case,” says Mary Broderick, executive director of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, “it’s very dangerous for civilians to decide that somebody is guilty and that they’re going to see that they’re punished.”

The Smarts, however, have no intention of quitting. “I’m definitely in this until it gets resolved,” says Stan, 53, principal of Vintage High School in Napa, Calif., who has spent much of the past three summers searching for Kristin with his son Matt, 19. He and Denise, who coordinates English-language classes for foreign-speaking students in Stockton, have already spent $50,000 of their children’s college funds to finance their crusade.

But beyond the money, the tragedy “has had a devastating impact on our family,” Stan Smart concedes. At her mother’s request, Kristin’s 16-year-old sister Lindsey carries a pager at all times. And Matt, an Olympic swimming prospect, decided to stay in Stockton and attend the University of the Pacific despite scholarship offers from around the country.

What if the unthinkable happens, and Kristin’s body is never found? Just how long does Denise Smart plan to continue her crusade against Paul Flores? “Forever,” she replies, almost in a whisper. “He needs to know we’re never going away.”

Johnny Dodd in Stockton

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