The Disappearance of Kristin Smart: What Happened and What’s Next

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(Torrance) – – Just across the East Branch Street, from city hall, in the California central coast - Credit: Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
(Torrance) – – Just across the East Branch Street, from city hall, in the California central coast - Credit: Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Nineteen-year-old Cal Poly student Kristin Smart went missing after a campus party 25 years ago, and, this summer, her case is finally getting its day in court. In April, Paul Flores, 44, was arrested on one count of murder in connection to the case, and his father, Ruben Flores, 80, was arrested as an accessory after the fact.

The younger Flores has long been the only person of interest in Smart’s disappearance; she was last seen on May 25th, 1996, after attending a party near campus. After apparently becoming intoxicated, Smart headed back to her dorm with fellow partiers Tim Davis and Cheryl Anderson. Flores, who had been seen with Smart earlier in the evening — he attempted to flirt with her and apparently fell on her at one point, according to witnesses — joined the group and allegedly accompanied Smart home. She was never seen again and her body has not been located.

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The search for Smart did not begin until a week after her disappearance, as campus police refused to take a missing person’s report from a dorm mate; the hunt only began in earnest after the student called the police and the Smart family.

Flores was first interviewed by Cal Poly police investigators near the end of May 1996, according to The San Luis Obispo Tribune, and the Cal Poly police didn’t search his room until June 10th. By then, the semester was over and the room had been cleaned out. The county sheriff’s office searched his room once more during the weekend of June 29th, when a team of cadaver dogs signaled the smell of human decay.

Flores and his parents have always maintained that he had nothing to do with Smart’s disappearance. Paul invoked the Fifth Amendment when the DA’s office subpoenaed him to testify before a grand jury in 1996 and after the Smarts filed a $40 million wrongful-death lawsuit against him; during a 1997 deposition, he again pleaded the Fifth. Smart was declared dead in 2002.

The case recently reentered the public eye with the 2019 launch of the popular true-crime podcast, Your Own Backyard, hosted by musician Chris Lambert, who has spent his life haunted by a missing person’s billboard featuring Smart’s face. “True crime podcasting is not something that particularly captivated me,” Lambert told Rolling Stone last year. “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?”

After Paul and Ruben’s arrests, Sheriff Ian Parkinson revealed that Lambert’s podcast helped move the investigation forward. “What Chris did was take a local story and turn it into an international story. … It did produce some information that I believe was valuable,” he said.

Denise Smart, Kristin’s mother, has also praised the show. “We feel like the stars aligned when the podcast aired,” she told Rolling Stone. “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.”

Prior to the arrests, in February 2020, Flores’ home, his parents’ home, and his sister’s home were searched by police. They seized digital devices during the search and, in April 2020, executed another search on Paul Flores’ property in San Pedro.

Below, Rolling Stone outlines where the Smart case is now:

April 14th, 2021

San Luis Obispo District Attorney Dan Dow announces charges against Paul Flores and his father Ruben in connection with what he calls the 1996 “homicide” of Cal Poly student Kristin Smart.

Paul Flores is charged with first-degree murder and is accused of killing Smart while attempting to rape her. The elder Flores is charged with accessory after the fact to the crime of murder for allegedly helping Paul conceal Smart’s body.

“These charges mark a major milestone,” Dow says in a statement. “Today, we make the first move toward bringing justice to Kristin, her family, and the people of San Luis Obispo County.”

April 19th, 2021

Paul Flores pleads not guilty to the murder and attempted rape of Smart. His father, Ruben Flores, pleads not guilty to being an accessory to the crime after the fact.

Paul Flores isn’t granted bail, with Judge Craig B. Van Rooyen saying that his release could result in “great bodily harm” to the public. Ruben will be released on bail that he can afford.

July 14th, 2021

Paul and Ruben Flores appear at the San Luis Obispo Superior Court for the first time, at which time Judge Craig van Rooyen denies Deputy District Attorney Christopher Peuvrelle’s request to add two rape charges against Paul, according to The Tribune of San Luis Obispo.

“There’s no evidence of a sex crime in the charged crime (the murder case) itself,” van Rooyen says. “Proof of the L.A. charges can’t act as a substitute … for the SLO case.”

July 15th, 2021

Previously sealed documents related to the case become available to the public that explain the rape charges Peurelle attempted to add against Paul Flores. The unsealed documents include two claims from 2011 and 2017 that Flores raped two women while they were drunk in San Pedro. It also expounds on several other alleged rapes as well as unwanted sexual advances.

Also included is the result of a February 4th, 2020 search of Paul Flores’ San Pedro home, where San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s investigators seized electronic devices that featured videos showing Flores having sex with seemingly incapacitated women. They also uncovered videos in a folder labeled “practice” that featured women wearing ball gags and in other fetish positions. Flores was also in possession of Tramadol and Flexeril, known as “date rape” drugs.

In addition, the documents include a phone tap from January 2020 in which Paul’s mother, Susan, tells her son: “The other thing I need you to do is to start listening to the podcast. I need you to listen to everything they say so we can punch holes in it. Um, wherever we can punch holes. Maybe we can’t. You, you’re the one that can tell me,” a reference to Lambert’s Your Own Backyard, the podcast about Smart and Flores that has brought new attention to the case.

Additionally, the documents include information about a March 15th, 2021 search by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office of Ruben Flores’ Arroyo Grande property that included ground-penetrating radar. That technology uncovered a soil disturbance under the deck as well as four soil samples that tested positive for human blood; an April evacuation also tested positive for blood. Authorities also uncovered fibers consistent with the color clothing Smart was last seen wearing.

August 3rd, 2021

The evidentiary hearing is underway and witnesses are testifying in front of Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen about Flores’ interactions with Smart. On day two, August 3rd, a close friend of Smart’s from college, Steven Flemming, tells the court that Flores had interacted with Smart before the party they both attended prior to her disappearance. Once, he says, Flores was “lurking” in the lobby of Smart’s dorm at 1 a.m.; another time, he says he saw the man in Smart’s dorm room. He says Smart seemed uncomfortable but was too nice to ask the boy to leave.

“Everyone knew Paul (Flores) was creepy. A lot of women felt uncomfortable around him,” Flemming says. “He was not welcome.”

Defense attorney Robert Sanger, in turn, tries to poke holes in Flemming’s recollections. Other witnesses are also questioned, but Flemming’s testimony is noteworthy as he is the first to say he saw Flores and Smart together before the party.

August 6th, 2021

Recently unsealed court documents show the extent to which law enforcement has looked into Flores over the years: 48 search warrants involving wiretaps and GPS tracking, and a search of Flores’ former Cal Poly dorm room. The defense wants to suppress some of these searches, though, claiming that they were done illegally or without warrants. The prosecution upholds the validity of these searches, including one of Flores’ dorm room that was done after he moved out.

The documents also include several people the defense believes investigators should have looked into in addition to Flores, including convicted murderer and fellow then-student Scott Peterson, who was previously ruled out. Peterson may or may not have been at the party Smart disappeared after. Other men cited by the defense either reportedly dated or pursued Smart.

“Despite the fact that law enforcement had collected substantial evidence that Kristin Smart may have had reason not to return to her dorm room after leaving (fellow party-goers) Cheryl (Manzer) Anderson and Paul Flores and despite the fact that they had collected substantial evidence that there were multiple potential suspects who stalked, harassed or otherwise had conflicts with Kristin Smart, law enforcement made an early choice to change their ‘focus’ to murder and to Paul Flores as the ‘only suspect,’” Sanger wrote in a defense motion.

“There is no evidence of a murder and no evidence of a rape,” Sanger added. “After over 25 years, there is no evidence that Paul Flores committed the crimes for which there is no evidence.”

August 10th, 2021

Flores’ defense team serves Your Own Backyard podcaster Chris Lambert with a subpoena to serve as a witness in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on August 30th, as he has interviewed several witnesses before they spoke to law enforcement. The defense also tells Lambert he will not be allowed back in the courtroom — where he has been covering the hearing — as he is now a potential witness.

Judge van Rooyen objects to this assertion, though: “Just because (Lambert’s) been served does not necessarily mean he should be excluded,” he says. “I’m not going to exclude a member of the media (for doing their job).”

August 11th, 2021

Flores’ defense team moves to recuse the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office from the Smart case because prosecutor Peuvrelle and others have been seen wearing purple clothing, Smart’s favorite color.

The defense claims the prosecution is wearing said color “as a result of a Facebook request on the site ‘Justice for Kristin Smart'” to wear purple during a Memorial Day celebration. Defense Attorney Sanger calls the move a “stunning lack of objectivity.”

August 25th, 2021

The judge rules that the DA cannot be disqualified for wearing purple clothing.

September 8th, 2021

Podcaster Lambert will not be called to the stand during the Kristin Smart murder hearing. Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen rules that having the podcaster testify — and release his records — would have a “chilling effect” on the media’s ability to do their job.

Meanwhile, the hearing is scheduled to conclude on Friday, when the judge will rule if prosecutors have probable cause to go to trial.

September 20th, 2021

Testimony resumes at the Kristin Smart hearing after a week off. Witness Jennifer Hudson takes the stand, where she tells the court that, in 1996, when she was 17 years old, Flores laughingly told her he had “taken care of” Smart. She feared for her life, so did not tell anyone at the time — or for years after. “I was afraid I’d end up missing or buried someplace,” she says. She adds that Flores said he put Smart under a skateboard ramp in Arroyo Grande.

“He had a smirk when he said it, like it was a joke,” she says. “Anyone would have been terrified if they heard it.”

The defense questions Hudson about her drug use, but she says she was not doing drugs at the time.

September 22nd, 2021

After a lengthy hearing, San Luis Obispo County Judge Craig B. Van Rooyen rules that Flores will be tried for murder in the 1996 disappearance of Smart. His father, Ruben, will be tried as an accessory to the crime.

September 23rd, 2021

Smart’s family issues a statement following the news about Flores going to trial: “Yesterday was a very good day and we want to take this opportunity to thank all of Kristin’s supporters in San Luis Obispo and beyond. So many people have played such important roles over the past 25 years, and we are humbled by the amazing support and generosity we have received. We want to especially thank the District Attorney’s Office for their relentless efforts. Our family has always known that this was going to be a long, difficult, and emotional journey. We are now one step closer to justice for Kristin. She — and all who have worked so hard toward this day — deserve nothing less.”

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