By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Authorities using cadaver dogs have discovered several "items of interest" as they dig at the edge of a California university campus in hopes of finding the remains of a student who disappeared 20 years ago, a police spokesman said on Thursday.
Police and FBI agents excavating a grassy hillside some 300 yards (274 meters) from where Kristin Smart was last seen near her California Polytechnic State University dormitory in 1996 have turned those objects over to experts, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's spokesman Tony Cipolla said.
"The items of interest are being analyzed to see if they are related to this case or not. A forensic anthropologist is here and based on his analysis we may have to send them off for DNA analysis," Cipolla said.
He declined to elaborate, citing the ongoing criminal investigation. Smart was declared legally dead in 2002 but no arrests have ever been made.
New leads developed by a comprehensive review of the cold case prompted investigators to believe that Smart's body could be buried on the hill near a 50-foot (15-meter) concrete letter "P" marking the school.
The dogs, specially trained in detecting decomposed human remains and brought in from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, first homed in on three areas of the hillside in January.
"We knew at that point that there was something here," Cipolla said.
The dig at Cal Poly, about 150 miles (241 km) northwest of Los Angeles, has drawn renewed interest in the case two decades after Smart vanished on May 25, 1996.
Smart had left an off-campus party at about 2 a.m. that morning, accompanied by two classmates who believed the freshman was not in a condition not walk home by herself. The group was joined along the way by fellow student Paul Flores.
After they split up on campus, Flores was alone with Smart not far from her Muir Hall dorm. He has told police that he parted company with her there.
Flores was the last person to see Smart alive, according to authorities.
During the initial investigation after Smart was reported missing by fellow dorm resident, cadaver dogs alerted to Flores' room, specifically the mattress of his bed.
Flores was questioned by police in June 1996 and has been called a person of interest in the case but has not been arrested or charged.
The attorney who formerly represented Flores was no longer his lawyer, according to his office. It was not immediately clear if Flores has retained new legal counsel.
Smart's parents sued Flores and the university for wrongful death, but that litigation remains on hold during the criminal investigation.
"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,” the Smarts wrote in a statement released to the San Luis Obispo Tribune.
Delays in the investigation of Smart's disappearance prompted legislation in California requiring colleges and universities to share information about missing students more quickly with off-campus authorities.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Dan Grebler and Tom Brown)