Officials have been excavating the Cal Poly campus in San Luis Obispo, California, where Smart was last seen, looking for evidence in her mysterious disappearance

By K.C. Baker
Updated September 09, 2016 02:30 PM
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Credit: Axel Koester/Sygma via Getty

On the eve of Memorial Day weekend in 1996, California Polytechnic University freshman set out with friends for a night of fun, later hanging out at an off-campus party until the wee hours.

She was never seen again.

More than 20 years later, authorities are still searching for clues about what happened to the upbeat, athletic 19-year-old communications major from Stockton, California. She was last seen with a fellow freshman, Paul Flores, who remains a “person of interest” in her disappearance, the San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Office tells PEOPLE.

The investigation took a fresh turn on Wednesday, when the sheriff’s department and the FBI began excavating three sites on the sprawling San Luis Obispo, California, campus, where cadaver dogs found signs of human remains.

Meanwhile, Smart’s devastated parents, Stan and Denise Smart, have been waiting for closure. “When you lose a child, there’s a period of grieving, and then you come to a place of peace,” Denise Smart told PEOPLE in 1998. “But when you have a missing child, you don’t get that.

“There is no end. It doesn’t get any better.”

Here are five things to know about Smart’s mysterious disappearance, Flores, the ensuing investigation and the latest updates:

1. ‘Items of Interest’ Found While Digging on Campus

“We have found items of interest at the first and second excavation site,” a sheriff’s spokesman tells PEOPLE Friday. “We are not disclosing what those items are at this point. They are being analyzed to see if they are related to this investigation.”

The spokesman says that “ultimately it will be up to the sheriff to make a determination if we release that information to the public, because we have a criminal investigation that is ongoing and the sheriff does not want to jeopardize that case.”

The third site is now being excavated and an “item of interest” has also been found there, the spokesman says. The FBI is scheduled to dig throughout the day, he says.

2. Smart Was Last Seen Heading Back to Her Dorm After a Party

With classes finished before the long holiday weekend, Smart called her parents on Friday, May 24, 1996, and left a message telling them that she and some friends were heading to a party at 8 p.m. that night. While she told her parents to call her before she left, she never spoke to them.

Smart ended up attending an off-campus party, where she got drunk and passed out on a neighbor’s lawn, according to witnesses.

3. Freshman Paul Flores Was the Last Person Seen with Smart: Police

Police say that two students, including one of Smart’s girlfriends, offered to help her get back to her dorm, since she was unsteady on her feet. While they headed back to Muir Hall, where Smart lived during the school year, freshman Paul Flores volunteered to walk her home, according to police.

No one ever saw Smart again. The next afternoon, when Smart failed to show up for lunch, her friend alerted campus police, which didn’t begin fully investigating her disappearance until that Tuesday, when classes resumed, according to authorities.

4. Smart Family Believes Flores Had Something to Do with Daughter’s Disappearance

After Smart vanished, campus police questioned Flores, who said he last saw her walking to her dorm before he returned to his own room.

During questioning, when Flores was asked about a black eye he sported, he told campus police he got hurt in a pickup basketball game. Authorities grew suspicious, though, when one of his friends later told authorities Flores already had the bruise when he showed up to play.

Despite inconsistencies in Flores’ story, campus police said they didn’t have enough evidence to search his dorm room. Frustrated with the investigation, Smart’s parents sought help from the San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Office. Though Flores had returned home for the summer, investigators searched his dorm room with four cadaver dogs, which keyed in on Flores’s mattress, according to police.

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5. No Charges for Flores – While Scott Peterson Was Briefly Rumored, Then Ruled Out, as Suspect

Despite circumstantial evidence surrounding him, Flores has never been charged in connection with Smart’s disappearance. In 1996, a grand jury failed to indict him.

He has remained mum about the case, invoking his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent when he was deposed in a 2005 wrongful death civil suit brought against him by Smart’s parents, which they subsequently dropped.

And when authorities were investigating Laci Peterson’s murder, rumors swirled that her husband, Scott Peterson, had been involved in Smart’s disappearance since they attended Cal Poly at the same time.

Peterson, who was convicted of murdering his wife and their unborn child, denied any involvement and was ruled out as a suspect.

Flores could not be reached for comment. But his attorney in 1998 told PEOPLE that authorities had no evidence against Flores.

“It’s one thing to have suspicions,” Melvin de la Motte told PEOPLE, “but that doesn’t make up for evidence.”

With reporting by JOHNNY DODD