Officials Digging for Student's Remains on College Campus Where She Vanished 20 Years Ago

Police are digging up a hillside near the California dorms where freshman Kristin Denise Stewart was last seen in 1996

Kristin Smart. Photo: Axel Koester/Sygma via Getty

The long-unsolved case of California college student Kristin Denise Smart, who vanished more than 20 years ago, took a turn this week as officials began excavating for her remains, PEOPLE confirms.

Authorities are digging in an arid hillside on California Polytechnic University’s San Luis Obispo, California, campus, where the athletic and upbeat freshman was last seen.

Smart, then-19, went missing after an off-campus party in 1996.

San Luis Obispo Sheriff Ian Parkinson, who ordered a comprehensive review of the case when he took office six years ago, “is very determined to find closure for the Smart family,” sheriff’s office spokesman Tony Cipolla tells PEOPLE.

“Hopefully we will find something and be able to reach some kind of conclusion,” he says.

Officials decided to excavate the hillside near Muir Hall, a student dormitory where Smart was last seen, “based on a lead developed by an investigator who has been working on this case almost full-time,” Cipolla says.

Although the investigator had developed this lead “a couple years ago,” Cipolla says, “it took a while for it to come to fruition.

“Once we were able to act on the lead, the sheriff brought in the FBI, who brought specially trained decomposition dogs from Quantico in Virginia to the campus in January,” Cipolla says. “The dogs keyed in on three areas of interest, independently of each other.”

On Tuesday, more than eight months after dogs sniffed out what authorities believe could be Smart’s remains, the sheriff’s office and the FBI announced their plans to excavate three sites near the giant letter “P,” one of the two initials that stands for Cal Poly, which lays flat on the hillside.

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Using excavators and backhoes, members of the FBI’s evidence recovery team and the sheriff’s office this week tackled the first of the three areas the dogs had zeroed in on, digging three feet down into the dirt, says Cipolla.

“Then evidence recovery team members are sifting through it to see if can find any evidence,” he says.

Smart disappeared on May 25, 1996, after attending an off-campus party, police have said. She was last seen with fellow freshman Paul Flores, who told authorities he escorted her to her dorm, they said.

Flores remains a person of interest in Smart’s disappearance, Cipolla says. He declined to comment further about Flores.

Calls to Flores, the Smarts and the FBI were not immediately returned.

But on Wednesday, in an emailed statement to the San Luis Obispo Tribune, the missing teen’s parents, Stan and Denise Smart wrote, “Kristin has long deserved the attention, effort and respect that Sheriff Parkinson, his department, the FBI, the District Attorney and Cal Poly are giving to her recovery and our quest for justice.”

They wrote, “We are mindful that with or without the hoped for results from this week’s efforts, we are now on a path that will bring our family peace and comfort.”

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