A young Irvine woman who attends California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo is missing, the second female student there to vanish in just over two years.
Rachel Newhouse, 20, a junior studying nutrition, was last seen late Nov. 12 at a fraternity party at a Mexican restaurant and bar, authorities said. FBI agents joined town police in the investigation Wednesday as distraught friends and family members posted notices across six counties and on the Internet offering a $10,000 reward.
News of the disappearance rocked the scenic town, where residents, police and the college's 16,800 students are still troubled by the disappearance of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student Kristin Smart, 19. She was last seen at a campus party over Memorial Day weekend 1996.
That case led to massive media coverage and a change last spring in state law. The Kristin Smart Campus Safety Act of 1998 requires campus police to spell out exactly when they will call in outside authorities to investigate any violent crime.
The disappearances of the two women are strikingly similar, though authorities would not say whether they are seeking links and downplayed the college community's concerns that there is a connection.
"They are two separate cases," said Capt. Bart Topham, who is leading the investigation of the Newhouse case for the San Luis Obispo Police Department. "I don't think it serves anybody to comment on those rumors."
Newhouse's uncle, Peter Morreale of Riverside, said Wednesday that his niece had been drinking at the party with about 200 other people. She had gone there with friends. At a certain point she was asked for identification to prove she was old enough to drink, he said, and she quietly left.
"No one's seen her since," Morreale said.
He said Newhouse is extremely close to her parents and calls her mother as often as four times a week.
"It's way beyond unusual that she wouldn't call," said Morreale, a Riverside defense attorney. He said he has to presume that the young woman has been abducted.
"We love her very much. We're very sad," he said. "Anyone who has a child, who has watched a child grow up, knows what I'm talking about. There's not a dry eye in our house."
Newhouse, a hostess at a San Luis Obispo brewery, failed to show up for work Friday, Morreale said. Concerned, her boss called her roommates, who notified her parents and police.
Over the weekend, not far from where a huge billboard still begs for information about Smart, Newhouse's family members and friends walked any possible route she might have taken, searching for clues. Helicopters and police dogs joined the search, and a piece of a bridge railing with bloodstains was removed for testing.
Smart's mother, Denise, said of the second disappearance, "It gives me chills."
San Luis Obispo County sheriff's deputies identified a suspect in the Smart case, but he was never arrested or charged.
The missing woman's family filed a $40-million lawsuit against the college and the suspect, Paul Flores, a classmate of Smart. Flores' attorney, Greg Coates of San Luis Obispo, said the portion of the suit against his client was dropped in August.
Bill Wommack, a detective with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department and one of the original detectives investigating Smart's disappearance, said the criminal case is "active and open." He said Flores is still a suspect, but "we don't know if he's the only suspect because we don't know what's out there."
Smart's disappearance has received continued national media coverage. People magazine is due to have an article about the case in the edition that goes on sale Friday.
For students on the Cal Poly campus, the Newhouse case has again raised the specter of violence in what appears to be a safe place.
Diane Becker of Irvine said her daughter Heather, one of Newhouse's best friends, "just knew something had happened" as soon as she learned that Newhouse had not shown up for work. The two young women are part of a tight-knit group of Irvine High School graduates at Cal Poly, said Becker, who drove to the campus before dawn Tuesday to be with her daughter and the others.
"They're all terribly frightened," she said. "Nothing like this has ever happened to them before."
She said school psychologists are counseling Newhouse's friends.
Campus officials are responding on several levels. They have been in close contact with the Newhouse family and have scheduled a community forum at 11 a.m. today to share information about the investigation and to review personal safety precautions.
Smart's family was outraged by a three-day delay before she was officially listed as missing and a five-week wait before campus police called on other agencies for help. The family's lobbying in Sacramento led to the change in state law.
Campus Police Chief Tom Mitchell said Wednesday that, while his agency is not handling the Newhouse case, he is very concerned.
"The campus has two missing people, and it bothers the heck out of us," he said. "This is very tragic incident. The message is that people really need to be aware of their surroundings."
Investigators ask that anyone with information about the Newhouse case call them at (805) 781-7337.
Times librarian Lois Hooker contributed to this report.