SAN LUIS OBISPO — One warm Friday night in late spring 10 years ago, Kristin Denise Smart and three other young women started walking from their dorms at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. They were headed for the neighborhoods of apartment complexes and overpopulated "Animal House"-like bungalows that border the campus. They were looking for a party.
It was Memorial Day weekend. Kristin's first year away at college was coming to a close. The 19-year-old from Stockton would have considered that something to celebrate. As far back as February, she'd written to another student that "school seems like it is never going to end."
Kristin, who earned A's and Bs in high school, had struggled in a couple of her college courses. She had expressed doubts, in anguished conversations with her parents, about whether Cal Poly was right for her.
Three weeks earlier, her mother had sent a six-page, handwritten letter urging Kristin, the oldest of three children, to "learn from your mistakes and get on with life.... Wake up and smell the roses. You have a world of opportunities at your fingertips."
Later, after Kristin had failed to return to her dorm room and the searches had commenced -- searches with helicopters, horses and busloads of volunteers; searches guided by ground-penetrating radar, psychics and anonymous tipsters who signed their missives with code names like "Jellybean" -- her parents would be asked by reporters to describe their daughter.
Kristin, they would say, was "a dreamer," a girl who would give her family bear hugs, cook them omelets and, even in her late teens, sit on her father's lap. She loved the ocean and travel and poetry. She had been a counselor at a camp on Oahu. She would call her mother every week from Cal Poly, sometimes, yes, to "whine," but also to share successes.
"She wasn't one to run away from anything," her mother said, a pointed reference to the initial instinct of campus police investigators that they were dealing with another runaway -- treating Kristin's disappearance, in the opinion of her parents, "like a lost bicycle."
Her first choice for college had been a university on the Virgin Islands. Her parents, both educators, thought that was too far from their San Joaquin Valley home; Kristin instead picked Cal Poly, a popular state university on the Central Coast.
"We thought that would be a good place for her," Kristin's father, Stan Smart, recalled not long ago. "We thought it was a safe community, you know. And it is. It just didn't work out that way for our family."
Best known for its programs in agriculture, architecture and engineering, Cal Poly has long followed a hands-on educational philosophy calibrated -- without apology to academia's loftier aspirations -- to prepare its graduates for ready and rapid entry into the working world. "Learn by Doing" goes the campus creed.
Of course, part of the learning that any freshman does at Cal Poly, or at any non-commuter college for that matter, involves lessons in how to live away from home for the first time. It can be a time for social experimentation, for tasting new things, trying out new identities.
Kristin was no exception. Her e-mails, recovered after she disappeared, were signed with such aliases as Marysol, Roxie, Trixie, Kianna and punctuated with a 19-year-old's philosophical postscript: "Live your life to be an EXCLAMATION, rather than an EXPLANATION."
At some point, other students said, she had dyed her naturally blond hair brunet. She also had demonstrated a flair for melodrama. It was not uncommon, a friend would tell investigators, for Kristin to act drunk at parties, even when she was sober. Still, Kristin had seemed happy when her family visited her earlier in the spring.
"She was enjoying it, the social piece," said Stan Smart, a public school administrator in Napa who commutes home to Stockton for weekends. "I think she was exploring and finding her way."
Kristin's appearance was striking: 6 foot 1 with a lean swimmer's physique, high cheekbones and dark, almond-shaped eyes. In high school, her mother has said, she was bothered when her good looks attracted attention.
On the evening she went looking for a party, May 24, 1996, Kristin wore a short-cropped T-shirt, black running shorts and red athletic shoes. This was not an unusual ensemble for a female student at Cal Poly, especially on a day when temperatures had reached the high 80s.
Sometime after 5:30 p.m. Friday, Kristin left a message on her mother's telephone, reporting, happily, that she would be allowed to make up a biology test that somehow had been lost earlier in the year.
"She was very excited," Denise Smart recalled. "She said, 'Hi, good news, good news.' That was her good news: She had gotten a call from professor whatever his name was. She had been trying for so long to get that resolved."
About 8:30 p.m., Kristin and her three companions were on their way from the dorms, a staggered row of brick and concrete buildings set against a steep incline known as Poly Hill.