FBI agents sift through dirt at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo on Thursday for signs of Kristin Smart, a former student who vanished in 1996. Officials disclosed that ‘items of interest’ have been found and are being analyzed. (David Middlecamp / San Luis Obispo Tribune photo)

Investigators have uncovered some “items of interest” in their ongoing search for clues to the 1996 disappearance of former Cal Poly freshman Kristin Smart, a San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office spokesman said Thursday.

Earth movers continued to dig into a hillside near the Cal Poly “P,” the landmark concrete letter overlooking the campus in north San Luis Obispo, for the third consecutive day as investigators combed three excavation areas on the hill.

Crews focused on the second site Thursday. 

Twenty-five FBI personnel and 15 deputies with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office worked in the area, using hand tools to further probe the deep ditches created by the heavy machinery. 

Tony Cipolla, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman, wouldn’t elaborate on the “items of interest,” but said they’d been found during excavation of the first site, which investigators searched on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Cipolla described the find as “items we want to take another, closer look at.”

Forensic anthropologists and DNA experts are on scene to analyze some items, although others will be sent to FBI labs in Quantico, Virginia, Cipolla said. Since the items are part of an ongoing criminal investigation, Sheriff Ian Parkinson will decide whether to release any details, he said.

“It could be days, weeks or even months before we know what we have,” Cipolla said.

Heavy equipment continued to dig on a hillside at Cal Poly on Thursday, looking for signs of missing former student Kristin Smart, who disappeared in 1996.

Heavy equipment continued to dig on a hillside at Cal Poly on Thursday, looking for signs of missing former student Kristin Smart, who disappeared in 1996. (David Middlecamp / San Luis Obispo Tribune photo)

Smart was last seen in the early morning of May 25, 1996 when she left a party with fellow student Paul Flores, who remains a “person of interest” in the 20-year-old case.

The two were seen walking at the intersection of Perimeter Road and Grand Avenue toward her dorm at Muir Hall. She was officially declared dead in 2002.

Earlier this week, Smart’s parents, Stan and Denise Smart, issued a statement saying they felt the excavation demonstrated a commitment to bringing the family some final peace and comfort.

“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 said. 

The searchers are excavating to a depth of about three feet in a 90-foot radius at each of the three sites, with hand crews sifting through the dirt with rakes and shovels to look for any evidence related to the case.

Work began Tuesday and was expected to last four days, although it could extend into Saturday, officials said. 

The excavation started as the county Sheriff’s Office announced that a new lead “strongly suggests” the former Cal Poly student’s remains might be buried in the area.

Parkinson said Tuesday that investigators were also looking into several other undisclosed areas of interest in the county. Cipolla said on Thursday that those sites had been “examined,” but hadn’t yet been excavated.

Investigators would complete their search of the Cal Poly hillside before determining whether they would conduct additional excavations, he said.

“We’re kind of going to take it one at a time,” Cipolla said.

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Lindsey Holden is a reporter with the San Luis Obispo Tribune. Contact her at lholden@thetribunenews.com.