Last month, as students at California Polytechnic State University were graduating, Denise Smart had a more somber ceremony — a memorial service for her daughter Kristin, who has been missing for seven years.
Ceremonies like these tend to attract the families of other people who have disappeared without a trace. Buttons bearing the faces of the missing usually give the parents away.
"The worst thing for each of us is thinking that our daughters are forgotten," said Denise Smart. "It's like being in a club that no one wants to belong to."
The Laci Peterson case and the enormous media coverage surrounding her slaying hangs especially strong over California Polytechnic University. Laci Rocha and her future husband, Scott Peterson — the man now charged with killing her and their unborn child — were seniors at the school when Kristin Smart, then a 19-year-old freshman, disappeared on May 25, 1996.
Crucial Delay in Investigation
Kristin was last seen at a party at a campus fraternity house, and witnesses told police she drank heavily that night.
Kristin left the party with another woman and a male student named Paul Flores. She was last seen with Flores, who walked her to an area near her dormitory.
Crystal Calvin, Kristin's roommate, said she became worried when she didn't see Kristin the next morning. Calvin contacted campus police, but she said they didn't take her seriously because it was Memorial Day weekend, a holiday period when students normally take mini-vacations.
"They were like, 'It's Memorial Day weekend, and if we did this, if we filled out a missing person's [report] for every student who went away for the weekend, etc.,' " said Calvin. " 'You know that's not really necessary. I'm sure she'll be back.' "
But Kristin didn't come back. Officials did not declare her missing until four days later. Her family believes campus police ignored their daughter's disappearance during a period where investigators could have gathered critical clues.
"It's probably happened a hundred times a year where somebody gets drunk, passes out, wakes up the next day and they're back home [in their dorm]," said Tim Hames, a private investigator in the Smart case. "So they [campus police] don't really have experience with dealing with true missing persons, let alone a homicide. … Hindsight is 20/20 of course and looking back, it should have been processed."
A Suspect Never Charged
San Luis Obispo County police officials said they have long considered Paul Flores a suspect in Kristin's disappearance. However, they have never been able to gather enough evidence to arrest him. Police said they suspect the delay in declaring Kristin missing ultimately hampered their investigation.
"Much of the evidence was more than likely gone by Saturday or Sunday," said St. Luis Obispo police Lt. Steve Bolts. "He [Flores] is considered a suspect and continues to be the only suspect in our opinion at this time."
Flores has denied any involvement in the disappearance. Kristin was declared dead in May 2002, and her family subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Flores. They had sued Flores previously, but dropped the lawsuit because they hoped more evidence would surface.
ABCNEWS was unable to reach Flores but did speak with his attorney and his father. Neither would comment on the case.
Hoping for a ‘Final Chapter’
The Smart family hopes investigators eventually will uncover new information about what happened to Kristin.