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Close and Yet So Far: The Agonizing 25-Year Hunt for Answers in Kristin Smart's Disappearance

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Kristin Smart went out with some friends on May 24, 1996, hoping to find a Friday night party to kick off the long Memorial Day weekend.

But first, the 19-year-old called her parents, letting them know in the message she left on their answering machine that she had "good news" and would phone again on Sunday.

"She was very excited," her mom, Denise Smart, told the Los Angeles Times in 2006, recalling how Kristin shared that her biology professor was letting her retake an exam that had inexplicably gone missing earlier that quarter. "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."

Denise figured they'd catch up on Sunday, as they always had during Kristin's freshman year at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

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Kristin—the eldest of three siblings, who wrote poetry and had worked as a lifeguard in her hometown of Stockton—did find a party. But she never made it back to her dorm.

Earlier this month, Paul Flores went on trial for Kristin's murder, prosecutors alleging that Paul tried to sexually assault Kristin that night and ended up killing her.

He has pleaded not guilty.

Kristin Smart
Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock

What really happened on the night Kristin Smart disappeared?

According to myriad accounts of that night told to authorities and subsequently reported on, at around 8:30 p.m. on May 24, Kristin and three girlfriends left campus on foot and soon caught a ride in another pal's truck. After driving around for a couple of hours, Kristin suggested they go to a birthday party being thrown by some fraternity brothers at a nearby house.

But Kristin was the only one who wanted to go, so she got out of the vehicle about two blocks away from the party on Crandall Way.

"I can still see her standing there after we dropped her off, a little mad I think that I wouldn't go with her," her friend Margarita Campos told the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune (now just Tribune) in 1997. "Someone who wasn't as independent as Kristin wouldn't have gone to a party alone. She kept saying, 'You go with me.' But I didn't want to go. I told her, 'You better be careful,' and she said she would be fine. Then she said 'Bye.'"

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At that point in the evening, according to Kristin's friends, none of them—including Kristin—had been drinking.

Witnesses later told authorities that Kristin seemed intoxicated when she left the party, with one person claiming they saw her drinking tequila while police were also told she was chugging vodka. Still other partygoers said they never saw her with a drink.

One friend told police, per the LA Times, that it wouldn't have been unheard of for Kristin to act tipsier than she really was. When going through her emails, investigators also learned that she sometimes tried on different names for size, finding messages signed with a variety of monikers, including Roxie and Trixie.

She picked Roxie for this particular night out.

Kristin Smart
Axel Koester/Sygma via Getty Images

Kristin's parents described her as a warm, kind, fun-loving and adventurous but sometimes anxious girl, one who worked as a camp counselor on Oahu and traveled to Venezuela on an exchange program but was scared to get her driver's license. She called her mom every week and wasn't loving college so far, but was trying. Investigators found that she ended her email messages with, "Live your life to be an EXCLAMATION, rather than an EXPLANATION."

Her father, Stan Smart, told the LA Times, "We thought [Cal Poly, about a four-hour drive from Stockton] would be a good place for her. We thought it was a safe community, you know. And it is. It just didn't work out that way for our family."

At 6-foot-1 and fit from years of swimming, Kristin also cut a striking figure. She had dyed her naturally blonde hair brown during the school year and, the mercury hovering at 80 degrees on the night of May 24, friends remembered her casually dressed in black running shorts with a cropped T-shirt and red sneakers.

During the party, Kristin—who had told some people that her name was Roxie—was seen at one point with Paul Flores, also a 19-year-old freshman. At around 2 a.m. when the party was breaking up, she was heading out with fellow students Tim Davis and Cheryl Anderson, when Paul joined them "out of nowhere," Cheryl testified in a deposition reported on by the LA Times.

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When they got back to campus, Tim went in a different direction, toward his dorm, Cheryl telling Tim the rest of them could get back home on their own. The trio got to Cheryl's building first, Cheryl told investigators, recalling that Paul said he'd be sure to get Kristin back to her room safely. They went back and forth a little, Cheryl said, explaining that she would have walked Kristin back herself if Paul hadn't insisted he'd do it.

She said that she didn't remember Kristin saying anything on the walk home. Paul was keeping an arm around her, seemingly to help her along, and on a few occasions when Kristin stopped walking, Paul told Cheryl she was free to go on ahead. When they got to her building, Cheryl added, Paul asked her for a kiss goodnight, which she found weird, and then when she declined, a hug. Maybe she shook his hand, she recalled.

Then he and Kristin walked off into the night.

Kristin Smart
Axel Koester/Sygma via Getty Images

Paul told campus police that, as they approached their respective residence halls, he and Kristin went their separate ways.

He had a black eye, he explained, from playing pickup basketball the Monday after the party. (A fellow player told the cops that Paul showed up with the black eye and, when asked where he got it, claimed he just woke up with it.) In a subsequent interview with campus police, Paul said he sustained the injury while doing repair work on a truck at his father's house but hadn't wanted to "sound stupid" before.

A police report stated that Paul's roommate, who had been away for the weekend, said Paul told him of the night in question that he walked Kristin to her dorm and went back to his room. But also he had teased Paul about the case, the roommate added, and when he asked Paul "what he did" with Kristin, Paul said, "She's home with my parents."

Paul appeared before a grand jury in October 1996, one of eight people subpoenaed to give evidence. He invoked his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself and his testimony only lasted for about five minutes.

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Meanwhile, some friends had gone looking for Kristin later that weekend when she failed to turn up and knocks on her door went unanswered. But authorities reportedly weren't alerted until Kristin's roommate, Crystal Calvin, returned to the dorm on Monday, May 27, and saw Kristin's purse and other personal items in the room where she'd last seen them Friday. She called the University Police Department twice, and later that day they reached out to Kristin's parents to see if she was at home with them.

"When they first contacted us, like any parent, I was frustrated to think that she'd done something embarrassing," dad Stan told the San Francisco Examiner in 1998.

Per the LA Times, in the University Police's May 28 report first documenting that Kristin was missing, an officer wrote, "Smart appeared to be under the influence of alcohol on Friday night. Smart was talking with and socializing with several different males at the party. Smart lives her life in her own way, not conforming to typical teenage behavior."

The last sentence of the report read, "These observations are in no way implying that her behavior caused her disappearance, but they provide a picture of her conduct on the night of her disappearance."

Frustrations pile up in the investigation into Kristin Smart's disappearance

Margarita Campos said on the Nov. 28, 2020, episode of CBS News' 48 Hours that, when they parted ways on the night in question, Kristin didn't have money, ID or her keys, so Margarita gave Kristin her key to let herself back into the residence hall later.

"I was expecting her to knock on my door and be, like, 'Oh, Margarita, you missed a rager. And here's your key,'" Margarita said. "I knocked on her door, and I thought she was just sleeping, or she went out and about, you know?" As for the campus police, she recalled, "They were, like, 'Are you sure she didn't go out of town?' It's, like, she has nothing on her...How could she have gone out of town?"

"To this day, like, I was like, why—why did I just let her go by herself?...I did have guilt about that," Margarita said. "But you have to understand, she was a really independent free spirit."

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Authorities also entertained the possibility that Kristin had simply run away, a notion her mother didn't believe for a second, no matter much she hoped her daughter was alive and well. Talking to the Los Angeles Times in 2006, Denise recalled feeling as if investigators were treating Kristin "like a lost bicycle."

Searchers conducted a dig at the landfill where the Cal Poly trash was dumped several days after Kristin disappeared, but it was reportedly four weeks before campus police reached out out to the San Luis Obispo Sheriff's Department for assistance.

Why did police suspect Paul Flores of being involved in Kristin Smart's disappearance?

Soon, however, investigators honed in on Paul, a below-average student who, according to what his parents told police, had no friends in high school and hadn't found much social success in college, either.

In December 1995, another female student had called the San Luis Obispo Police on him after he climbed up a trellis and refused to get off her balcony, but he left before officers arrived. Six weeks after that, he was caught speeding his truck through an intersection and, after blowing a .13 (.08 being the legal limit) on a breathalyzer, he lost his license.

"[On] weekend nights," a law enforcement source told the LA Times, "he'd sit in his room and drink beer, get drunk and then go wander around the outskirts of campus, looking for parties."

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Per that source, Tim Davis, a senior who helped throw the party before walking part of the way home with Kristin, Cheryl and Paul, told investigators he "saw Paul Flores on top of Kristin Smart," whose name he thought was Roxie, in the hallway. "He didn't know if Flores had knocked Kristin Smart down on purpose or if it was an accident." Paul and Kristin got up, according to Tim, and went their separate ways.

Tim also said, per the source, that he saw "Roxie" at the end of the night lying down outside on the next-door neighbor's lawn. He went over to wake her up and she told him she was cold.

Authorities thoroughly believed that Paul was their guy, that he was the only one who could say for sure what happened to Kristin. Four different scent dogs led police to Paul's dorm, an indicator that she had been there. But as weeks turned into months and months turned into years, that was technically only a working theory, as no trace of the teen's body was ever found.

Kristin Smart, Stan Smart, Denise Smart
Axel Koester/Sygma via Getty Images

Years go by in the search for answers about Kristin Smart's fate

Kristin's parents, meanwhile, were also convinced of Paul's guilt, suing him for wrongful death in 1996 in hopes of getting him to reveal more about that night. In a 1997 deposition, Paul invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself in response to every question other than "What is your name?"

The Smarts also kept their own files on the case—and kept tabs on Paul, sending members of his family photos of Kristin in their myriad pleas to get them to talk. All of the packages were returned, after being opened, to the Smarts.

Denise and Stan kept the search for Kristin going after police activity tapered off, giving interviews in order to keep her name and face in the news, contacting the FBI and state lawmakers. In 1997, the California legislature passed the Kristin Smart Campus Safety Act, which requires campus police to promptly report missing students to local law enforcement and for the entities to formally work out which agency will take the lead in the case of a violent crime.

"It's been like having an open wound and having someone continually pouring salt in it," Denise told the Examiner in 1998. "Having a missing child is just not something that gets better over time. It's another dimension, and it just can't heal." (A lawyer who had previously represented Paul told the newspaper that there were "no facts to indicate that Paul had anything to do with the disappearance of Kristin Smart.")

And, Denise insisted, "we're not after Paul Flores...We're after our daughter. We only want our daughter back."

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Two year after his daughter went missing, Stan Smart was still going to Cal Poly about once a month to search for Kristin, or traces of her, himself.

"Stan feels like sometimes he just needs to go there, to be there," Denise explained. "I'm just the opposite. It's too chilling, too hard for me to be there."

Denise Pearce, a family friend who used to have Kristin babysit her kids, told the Examiner that Kristin "would be so grateful, but so surprised that she would have gotten this much attention."

The case—beautiful, vibrant college student goes missing without a trace—naturally captivated the media at first and tips poured in as to Kristin's supposed whereabouts, all disappointments in the end.

Paul Flores, Kristin Smart, House
Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/Shutterstock

But even when the initial frenzy quieted down, the investigation was frequently revisited over the years. Amateur sleuths took up the case as well, chat rooms and message boards giving way to social media and Reddit threads. The most notable deep dive of late came courtesy of musician Chris Lambert's 2019-2020 podcast Your Own Backyard, seemingly a nod both to the proximity of the crime to where he grew up and authorities' suspicion that Paul had buried Kristin close to home.

The result, however, was always the same frustrating dead end, that Kristin's killer was out there and it was no secret as to whom the police suspected, but there were no arrests and no charges.

"Because of inconsistencies in his activities, or claimed activities during that period, we believe he has further knowledge about what happened, and he is a suspect in her disappearance," Sgt. Bill Wammock of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department told the Examiner, referring to Paul Flores, in 1998. "This has been a frustrating case for us, for the parents, for the press, because we don't have an answer to what happened here."

Kristin was formally declared dead in 2002. In 2006, sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Brian Hascall called Paul an "active suspect" and the investigation "open and active."

Talking to the LA Times in 2006, 10 years after Kristin disappeared, Stan said, "Nothing really has changed. I mean, I still have a lot of anger about the situation. And my wife is a bit of an emotional wreck at times. And it hasn't been resolved. We haven't really resolved the issues as to where our daughter is, and what happened to her."

Paul Flores, Kristin Smart
Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock

A break in the Kristin Smart case

But investigators never gave up the quest to make their case.

The Smart investigation showed new signs of life in 2020 when Paul's Los Angeles-area residence and vehicles were searched for "specific items of evidence," as noted in the search warrant. The San Luis Obispo Sheriff's Department also obtained a wiretap for his calls and text messages. Four other residences in California and Washington were searched last year, as well, including Paul's mother Susan's residence in Arroyo Grande, Calif.

And on April 13, 2021, seven weeks shy of the 25th anniversary of Kristin's disappearance, Paul, now 45, was arrested and the next day charged with first-degree murder, authorities alleging that on the morning of May 25, 1996, he tried to sexually assault Kristin in his dorm room and, in the course of events, killed her and then buried her body in his father's yard. He has pleaded not guilty.

At arraignment his lawyer, Robert Sanger, said Paul "denies every allegation, special or otherwise," against him. Moreover, he added, the affidavit which prompted a judge to sign off on his client's arrest warrant contained "very little" information that wasn't already a "matter of public record, blogging, speculation and whatnot for over 20 years."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher Peuvrelle offered that Sanger "must not have read the same warrant I did."

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Paul Flores, Kristin Smart
Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock

Paul's 80-year-old father, Ruben Flores, was also arrested at his home in Arroyo Grande and charged with accessory after the fact of murder for allegedly helping Paul hide Kristin's body. He pleaded not guilty and was released on $50,000 bail into his ex-wife's supervision and fitted with an ankle bracelet monitor.

Peuvrelle, who is prosecuting both father and son, said at Ruben's bail hearing that the excavation beneath the defendant's deck "showed damning evidence that a body had been buried in that location and then recently moved."

Prosecutor Chris Peuvrelle, Kristin Smart trial
Daniel Dreifuss/AP/Shutterstock

Ruben's attorney, Harold Mesick, countered that the so-called evidence against his client—disrupted soil—was "so minimal as to shock the conscience."

Paul, who moved to Southern California in the late 1990s and was arrested in San Pedro, was denied bail and has been in custody since his arrest. He's currently in a Monterey County jail about 126 miles away from San Luis Obispo, a judge having ordered a change of venue for the trial.

In his opening statement earlier this month as Paul's murder trial got underway July 18, his attorney Robert Sanger maintained that there was no body and therefore still no case. Whatever happened to Smart was "obviously...a tragic situation in one sense or another," he said. "It is believed she is deceased, but there is no evidence of what happened to her after Paul Flores left her."

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Kristin Smart
Axel Koester/Sygma via Getty Images

At a press conference announcing the arrests in April 2021, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson, who'd held the top job since 2011, acknowledged that, in the days immediately following Kristin's disappearance, "mistakes were made, and that made things much more difficult."

But, he also said, in the prior 10 years his investigators had executed more than 40 search warrants, recovered 193 new items of evidence, conducted 138 in-person interviews and had dozens of pieces of evidence re-examined. And while he still couldn't go into certain details at the time, he added, they had found physical evidence related to Kristin's death in two homes and their evidence included trucks that belonged to the Flores family when she disappeared.

Denise and Stan Smart credited Parkinson for being "true to his word," saying in a statement at the time, "We have kept the faith; never given up; and fully placed our trust and support with him and his team. The task he and his team accepted was unprecedented in volume and scope, yet they met every setback and challenge with resolve and an unequaled commitment to Kristin and our family."

Kristin Smart
Kristin Smart

The Smarts' longtime attorney James Murphy—who filed the wrongful death suit on their behalf in 1996 and has had a billboard touting a $75,000 reward for information leading to Kristin's whereabouts in his front yard since 1997—told 48 Hours after the Flores arrests, "To see them in custody was a feeling of great joy for me...My job was to hunt them. And that's what I've been doing for a long, long time, along with a lot of other people. That's been our goal."

Denise and Stan are "interested in seeing Paul Flores get convicted and Ruben Flores get held accountable," Murphy continued, but "most importantly they want to find their daughter."

He promised them the billboard would stay up until that happened.

For more true crime updates on your need-to-know cases, head to Oxygen.com.

(Originally published May 25, 2021, at 4 a.m. PT)