OPINION: College student’s disappearance sparked creation of safety act

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Michael Förtsch

Courtesy Photo

Tonie Lopez, Assistant Opinion Editor

When starting a new semester, most families of college students would never imagine their child would become a victim of a crime.

Just a day before CSUN’s 2022 spring break began, I was the victim of a crime right near campus. Occurring at the 7-Eleven on Reseda Boulevard and Plummer Street, I was nearly carjacked and then pistol-whipped when I refused to give over my keys. It was absolutely terrifying, and no one came to help. It was a very surreal moment, almost like I was in the crime shows I watch all the time.

After a brief scuffle and threatening the attacker with my knife, the suspect ran away into the night. Police and an ambulance arrived almost right away and transported me to the hospital, as I had a huge bleeding gash on my forehead that needed stitches. The police interviewed me at the hospital and I was kept there overnight for observation.

To this day, the suspect has not been caught or identified. Shortly after, I was contacted by the campus police who helped me with the case, including putting me in touch with counseling services on campus. Amid this horrible experience, I was thankful for a campus law that was put into place that allowed what happened to be handled thoroughly and not ignored. This law is known as the Kristin Smart Campus Safety Act.

The Kristin Smart Campus Safety Act was created to help college students who are victims of violence, including those who go missing. This act makes it mandatory for all college campuses to have written agreements between campus law enforcement and local law enforcement, which outline who has operational responsibility for certain crimes.

The creation of the act stems from a crime involving 19-year-old Kristin Denise Smart, who was a California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo student.

Smart disappeared after attending an off-campus fraternity house party in the early morning hours of May 25, 1996. Her disappearance was not reported to campus police until three days later. She was just nearing the end of her freshman year, and was never seen or heard from again.

The investigation was very slow starting off. Authorities even suggested that Smart was off having fun and just simply did not tell anyone. This theory was heavily dismissed by her friends and family. A suspect named Paul Flores, who was a fellow student at Cal Poly, was identified as the last person to be seen with Smart as he walked her back to her dorm after the party.

Cadaver dogs were brought into student housing quarters a month after she went missing to track Smart’s scent and eventually led to the room where Flores had stayed. Unfortunately, since the academic year had ended, all the rooms had been cleaned and any physical evidence was now gone.

Sadly, Smart was never found. She was declared legally dead in 2002, six years from the day she went missing.

After over two decades of investigation, Flores was eventually arrested and convicted of the first-degree murder of Smart in October of 2022. His father, Ruben Flores, was arrested on charges of being an accessory in helping his son dispose of Smart’s body. However, he was acquitted. Smart’s body has never been found.

The story of Smart really spoke to me. She was not only a college student, but also the victim of a near-campus crime. Due to the events surrounding Smart’s case, the Kristin Smart Campus Safety Act was enacted for early intervention of violence against students. I really believe that in the wake of her tragedy, this act has no doubt helped many students and prevented many worse things from happening.

In 2018, the value of this act was demonstrated when a young female student was assaulted while riding her bike on campus at CSUN. The suspect, Peter Wei, allegedly started to choke the student, pulling her hair and telling her he wanted to make love to her. She escaped and sought refuge in Bookstein Hall, where he followed her until she confronted him publicly and recorded him. Wei lunged toward the student when bystanders intervened and she got away. Wei had allegedly assaulted another female student just the day before in a similar manner near campus.

Wei pleaded no contest to two felony counts of sexual battery by restraint. He was sentenced to a one-year stay at a mental health program, required to register for life as a sex offender, ordered to wear a GPS monitor for one year, and given probation for five years.

Campus police, working with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, made sure that Wei would be punished and held accountable for his actions. A five-year prison term for Wei would occur if he were to violate the conditions of his probation. It’s likely the handling of this case and the consequences laid out wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the Kristin Smart Campus Safety Act.

For the many students who have been in moments of crisis and hardship, this is a way for them to have a voice and receive some justice. This is why these safety nets on college campuses are so important. It helps those who need it most, and can stop them from becoming a statistic. If something happens, it provides some peace of mind knowing that someone is in your corner and willing to listen. I know for me, that was the case.