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- American woman who disappeared in 1996
Chris Lambert has spent most of his life in Central California haunted by a billboard. The sun-bleached sign features a photo of smiling Cal Poly student Kristin Smart — and the promise of a $75,000 reward for her recovery. “If you grew up on the Central Coast, you’ve heard her name,” Lambert, 31, a musician and podcaster, tells Rolling Stone. “[The billboard is] a reminder that they’ve never found her. I thought, ‘What happened here? Why are there no answers?’ So, I started researching it.”
Smart has been missing for almost 24 years now, but, in early February, Lambert found himself pulled into the drama that had captivated for him so long. That was the day members of San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI arrived at Susan Flores’ home to search the property. Flores is the mother of the only person of interest ever named by authorities in the case, Paul Flores. The younger Flores has never been charged with any crimes related to Smart — he’s also never spoken to reporters about the case and did not respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment.
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When the sheriff’s office released a press release a little before 7:30 a.m. that day, they didn’t reveal that this house in particular would be searched — the Sheriff’s spokesman Tony Cipolla only stated that officers were searching four locations in California and Washington State as part of the investigation into the disappearance of 19-year-old Smart. Still, Lambert and everyone else in the area knew that one of those locations would be the Flores home. So, while onlookers flooded the streets chanting, “Dig her up!” Lambert spirited himself away to a neighboring backyard to watch it all go down.
Lambert isn’t used to hiding in bushes — he’s the kind of guy you’d usually find fiddling in a studio or watching The Office and finger-picking a guitar. A hardened true crime journalist he is not. An indie folk musician by trade, Lambert is shy and reserved, and despite hosting an extremely popular podcast about Smart’s case, In Your Own Backyard (which launched September of 2019), he’s not too keen on social interactions. Sure, he wanted to see what was happening at the Flores house, but he didn’t want to have to talk to anyone — at least not without the shield of his podcasting gear. But now, he’s found himself in the thick of it, as the case he’s been following almost obsessively has heated up once more.
Kristin Smart, a freshman at California Polytechnic State University, disappeared May 25th, 1996, after attending a party near campus. After apparently becoming very intoxicated, Smart was accompanied back to her dorm by fellow partiers Tim Davis and Cheryl Anderson. Paul Flores somehow joined the crew, seemingly out of nowhere, according to Anderson. Davis told investigators that Flores had been trying to flirt with Smart at the party and had even apparently fallen on her at one point. Anderson also told investigators that fellow students called the 19-year-old man “Chester the Molester.”
Davis peeled off and Anderson left Flores and Smart about 40 steps from her dorm, Muir Hall, saying that he would walk Smart home. And that was the last anyone ever saw of her. No one started looking for her in earnest until about week after her disappearance under the misguided impression that she had gone away for the weekend; campus police declined to take a missing person’s report when a dorm mate noticed that Smart had not returned back to her room two days after the party. The student had to call both the police and the Smarts in order to raise the alarm.
When campus police took a report at the behest of Smart’s parents, according to the Los Angeles Times they wrote: “Smart lives her life in her own way, not conforming to typical teenage behavior. 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.” The report also detailed how Smart didn’t have many friends, appeared to be drunk the night of her disappearance, and how she spoke to several men at the party.
Flores was first interviewed by Cal Poly police investigators Ray Barrett and Mike Kennedy at the end of May 1996, according to The San Luis Obispo Tribune; he was also interviewed by the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office. The Cal Poly police didn’t search his room until June 10th, after the semester was over and the room had been cleaned out. He was interviewed by the DA’s office again on June 19th, and during that talk, he admitted that he had lied about a black eye he sustained around the time of the party. He initially had said he got the shiner playing basketball, but then backtracked and said it came from working on his car stereo; he told authorities he didn’t want them to think he was clumsy.
Over the course of the interviews, Flores denied any wrongdoing when it came to Kristin, telling investigators: “I walked with her to where the driveway was and I went off to my dorm.”
After the confession about the black eye, though, Flores clammed up — and he hasn’t talked to anyone on the record since. Still, according to the Times, he joked to a roommate in the days following Smart’s disappearance that he knew where Kristin was: at home with his parents. The strange quip took on an ominous tone considering Flores had recently helped pour concrete in his mother’s backyard.
University Police Chief Tom Mitchell requested the help of the county sheriff’s office after a month of investigations, and then-Sheriff Ed Williams took over the case. During the weekend of June 29th, a team of cadaver dogs went wild in Flores’ old dorm room, signaling the smell of human decay.
Flores and his parents have always maintained his innocence, invoking the Fifth Amendment when the DA’s office subpoenaed him to testify before a grand jury in 1996. He also stayed quiet after the Smarts filed a $40 million wrongful-death lawsuit against him; during a 1997 deposition, he again pleaded the fifth. According to The Tribune, that lawsuit cannot move forward during an active criminal investigation. Smart was declared dead in 2002.
Lambert details all this and more in his podcast, homing in on details that armchair sleuths believe signal Flores’ guilt: a possibly blood-flecked earring that looked like one of Smart’s found on Susan Flores’ property by renters (it was misplaced by the police) and a mysterious beeping that emanated from the concrete yard at 4:20 every morning — about the time Smart often set her alarm for to make it to early swim practices. He also highlights that both Flores parents have remained at their residences, despite harassment by would-be investigators. Every story is backed up by interviews with those involved: from the renters to an old girlfriend of Flores’ to cadaver-dog experts.
If this all seems like a lot of work, that’s because it was. Despite having no formal training in law enforcement or journalism, Lambert became so fixated on the case that he quit his job at a musical instrument store in Lompoc in May 2018 to work on the podcast full-time. He handled every aspect of the show, from recording to mixing to the music.
“True crime podcasting is not something that particularly captivated me,” he says. “But it was a local story and the thing that stood out to me is that nobody was talking about it anymore. I didn’t understand why. How are we not all talking about this every day until she’s found?”
Lambert had the recording chops, having served as an engineer for his share of other artists; he also hosted another podcast from 2016 to 2019: Are We Okay?, an interview show in which he introduced his mostly local listeners to various community members and friends. The freeform, often-rambling show stands in stark contrast to In Your Own Backyard, an incisive look into the life and possible death of Kristin Smart. To date, the crime show has been downloaded more than 2.4 million times.
“I started asking friends and family members and anybody I could, ‘Do you remember what happened to Kristin Smart?” Lambert says. “They all had a different idea of who I was talking about and nobody really knew the details.”
Lambert’s digging finally yielded results on a 2019 visit a memorial to Smart on Shell Beach on her birthday, February 20th. On the site, there’s a plaque featuring a poem by Smart about her love of the ocean: “Floating upon the salty waters/I cringe with excitement/To be in such a heavenly place.” It’s located about 11 miles from the Cal Poly campus.
“I decided to go up there with my microphone and just see if anybody showed up to remember her that day, so I could interview them,” he says. No one turned up for a while as Lambert stood in the cold rain, but after a few hours, two older women appeared. “I asked if I could talk to [them] And [one of them] turned out to be Kristin’s mom, [Denise]” Lambert says. She had driven from her home in Stockton, over 250 miles away. “I just happened to be waiting there,” Lambert says.
“My friend Candace introduced us,” Denise Smart tells Rolling Stone over email. (Candace was the other woman.) “She said, ‘He knows a lot about Kristin,’ and I thought, ‘That’s nice.’ We later went to dinner and I was immediately struck by his respectful and understated presence. He was quiet, very quiet, yet I could feel his compassion that we all needed answers, that it was not OK to have a young woman ‘in his own backyard’ just vanish without justice and that very few knew her story.”
From there, Lambert and the Smarts became friends. Lambert went to visit them in Stockton and, in the first episode of the podcast, they have a long conversation about Kristin, an avid swimmer and a lover of the beach. They then introduced Lambert to her daughter’s friends and high school classmates for further interviews. “That’s been the best part of all of this: just forming a real friendship with the family,” he says.
While talking with friends, family, and people in his community, Lambert happened upon a disturbing trend that would crowd subsequent episodes of the podcast: multiple women who had attended school with and worked with Paul Flores had stories related to excessive drinking and overly forward flirtations. In 2016, four women came forward to the Daily Beast to allege that Flores had physically or sexually assaulted them. Lambert spoke with one of the women from that story, “Laura,” a former girlfriend who claimed Flores was aggressive and once brandished a butter knife in her face. Lambert also spoke with 13 other women who accused Flores of everything from predatory behavior to harassment to sexual assault.
Lambert has made two attempts to reach out to Flores; he once spent eight hours sitting in a car outside the man’s San Pedro home. “I thought if I don’t at least try, I’ll hate myself,” he says. “So, yeah, I sat outside of Paul’s house. I was just hoping to walk up to his door and just ask, ‘Is this how you want to live the rest of your life?’” He also says he tried calling Flores’ cellphone and received no answer.
Despite Flores’ silence, Lambert is still hoping someone will come forward who will finally tie up all the loose ends. “I know for a fact that [my podcast] got the public talking about Kristin again, which, according to the Sheriff’s department has been a good thing,” Lambert says. “I was a little concerned about how that would affect my relationship with them. It’s like, you’re working on this secretly and then this guy comes along and starts talking and now the entire community is outraged and they want answers now.”
The San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Department and the FBI declined to be interviewed by Rolling Stone, but the Sheriff’s Department did credit Lambert’s podcast with helping move the case forward in interviews with both the podcaster and the press.
“The podcast that Chris put together is very well done,” Sheriff Ian Parkinson said in a recent interview with KVEC 920AM. “Getting the story out there is what [persuades] people to come forward with information. I think the value of it has been big.”
Denise Smart has also credited Sheriff Parkinson with bringing new vigor to the investigation since he was sworn into office in 2011. “We feel like the stars aligned when the podcast aired,” she says. “It encouraged the previously reluctant to come forward. … This obviously gave law enforcement new leads to follow and connect with what they already were holding close.”
According to a statement the Sheriff’s Department gave to The Tribune, since Parkinson took the job, the office has served 18 search warrants, searched for physical evidence at nine locations, submitted 37 pieces of evidence from the case for DNA testing, uncovered 140 new pieces of evidence and interviewed 91 people.
In Your Own Backyard ran from September 2019 to January 2020 — and, not long after the seventh episode aired, authorities showed up at Susan Flores’ front door on that day in early February. They executed four search warrants and “recovered some items of interest” from the search sites, spokesman Cipolla said in an interview with New York Times: “We will now analyze those and see how they relate to this case. We would like nothing more than to bring closure to the Smart family in this case.”
The paper also reported that a man believed to be Flores was detained in a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department squad vehicle for two hours that day — and that his house was one of the locations searched. Cipolla confirmed the veracity of this statement to Rolling Stone.
With the heat back on Smart’s case, the family can only praise Lambert’s work. “We’ve listened to every podcast at least twice,” Denise Smart says. “The first time was the most difficult; it was surprising to hear our own voices in the context of her story. I only wish we could have included Kristin’s voice; she was like Chris in many ways. She could be shy and quiet at first meeting, yet she loved a good time and had a powerful inner strength. When she wanted to accomplish something, she always came through. She would never give up. So, as I listen to Chris, I often think how they would be fast friends.”
Although he’s not currently working on another episode in the now seven-part series, Lambert has been watching the case unfold should he need to pick up the microphone again. His kitchen table has been lost to the Smart case, covered in notes and discarded batteries; he and his girlfriend eat in the living room. Of course, he’s hoping that when he signs on again, Smart’s body will be found and an arrest will be made — at which time he plans to celebrate with the family he’s grown so close to. And, of course, he might be able to get back to his real life. “I cannot wait to get back to just writing songs,” he says. “It’s the easiest thing in the world compared to this.”
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