‘Be ready’: Mother of Kristin Smart, who went missing in 1996, says FBI told her news coming soon

This is an undated family handout photo of Kristin Smart, 19. (Photo: Stockton Record handout via AP)

STOCKTON, Calif. – Something may break soon in the case of Kristin Smart, the former Stockton resident and student at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, whose disappearance in 1996 remains unsolved, her family says.

Kristin’s mother, Denise Smart, said she recently was contacted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and told to be ready for a development that might bring closure to her more than 20-year nightmare.

“Be ready. This is really going to be something you don’t expect. We want to give you the support you need,” Smart said she was told by authorities.

The FBI also suggested she secure a family spokesperson and the family “might want to get away for a while,” Smart said. What the FBI didn’t tell her is when this development might be announced.

“It’s like, ‘Can you give me the flight plan?’” Smart said. “When is this happening?”

The FBI’s preparation alert certainly has brought renewed optimism. Though answers finally might come, not knowing what to be prepared for or when news might break has been agonizing.

“I wish I knew when,” Smart said softly, “because it’s very anxiety-producing.”

The 19-year-old vanished from the Cal Poly campus late her freshman year. Optimism has been raised time and time again then shattered. New leads led to brick walls. The bottom line: Kristin Smart has not been found.

Denise Smart said she never has harbored more hope, even more than in 2016, when the FBI and the Sheriff’s Office excavated a Cal Poly hillside following a tip that proved to be fruitless.

“When they did the big dig, I had no anxiety,” Smart said. “I said she’s not there.”

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The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department and the FBI have renewed a search for the remains of Kristin Smart at sites on the Cal Poly campus in San Luis Obispo, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016. (Photo: Joe Johnston, The Tribune of San Luis Obispo)

But now, there is belief the end may be near.

Adding to the momentum is Chris Lambert, 31, who was raised and resides in tiny Orcutt, an unincorporated town in Santa Barbara County about 40 miles south of San Luis Obispo. Lambert was in second grade when Smart disappeared. He had no connection with the Smarts. But growing up in the Central Coast, he knew her name and face and became interested with her case.

“It’s one of those things growing up here,” he said.

“I know there are many cold cases, but it really hit home, growing up in Orcutt,” he added.

Lambert produced a documentary podcast, “Your Own Backyard: The Disappearance of Kristin Smart,” employing his talents as a recording engineer and storyteller. He spent countless hours over many months conducting research and interviews, fine-tuning his presentation before he launched the podcast in September 2019.

The reaction has been notable: candlelight vigils, more billboards, more articles, more awareness, more people coming forward, more information, more leads, more hope.

“He has rallied support like no one ever has and brought a lot of those people out of the woodwork,” Smart said.

Kristin Smart has been a missing person longer than she was known to be alive (she was officially declared dead on May 25, 2002). She was bright, intelligent and motivated. In May 1996, the then-freshman reportedly was escorted to her dorm residence by three students after an on-campus party.

One of the students who reportedly escorted Smart to her dorm was Paul Flores, the primary suspect. Flores told police he walked Smart as far as his dorm then allowed her to walk to her dorm unaccompanied.

Cal Poly police originally suspected Smart had gone on an unannounced camping trip. The case wasn’t turned over to the Sheriff’s Office for a month, Lambert and Denise Smart said.

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“By the time they turned it over, so much had been lost, so many people had been able to move away and cover things up,” Lambert said. “So by the time the sheriff’s department came in they had a lot of work to do.

Kristin’s disappearance and the slow reaction by campus police resulted in the Kristin Smart Campus Security Act, signed into law by then-Gov. Pete Wilson on Aug. 19, 1998. The law requires all public colleges and publicly funded educational institutions to have their security services make agreements with local police departments and report cases involving violence against students, including missing students.

Lambert has shared some of his findings with the Sheriff’s Office, and after past interview requests were denied, his next podcast, the seventh in the series, due for release later this month or early next month, will be a sit-down with two San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s detectives.

“It’s probably imminently going to break I would say within a month,” Smart said. “Something’s going to happen.”

Follow reporter Bob Highfill on Twitter @bobhighfill.

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