A jury on Tuesday convicted Paul Flores in the murder of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student Kristin Smart, ending a more than two-decade mystery that both captivated and outraged the Central Coast college town.
Flores was found guilty of first-degree murder even though authorities never found Smart’s body, an issue long considered a stumbling block in the case.
His father, Ruben Flores, 81, was acquitted of being an accessory to murder. A second jury that heard evidence at the same time during the 12-week trial of the two men thought there was reasonable doubt that he had helped his son cover up the crime by burying Smart’s body under his house’s deck and keeping the remains there for years.
Smart was 19 when she vanished on May 25, 1996, after walking toward the college dormitories with Paul Flores after a party. She was legally declared dead in 2002.
Her disappearance and the murder investigation left an indelible mark on San Luis Obispo. Billboards appealed for evidence to convict her killer. The disappearance was the subject of a true crime podcast. And it spawned a cottage industry of investigators.
Because of that attention, a judge ordered that the trial be moved to Monterey County to ensure fair legal proceedings. Flores’ jury deliberated for eight days, while jurors in a case against his father deliberated for three days before reaching a verdict. Ruben Flores’ jury had to restart deliberations after an alternate had to replace one juror who was removed after he spoke to his priest about the case.
Paul Flores faces a sentence of 25 years to life in prison when he is sentenced on Dec. 9. His attorney, Robert Sanger, did not comment as reporters peppered him with questions as he left the Salinas courthouse.
San Luis Obispo County Dist. Atty. Dan Dow said that after a quarter-century, “the system has now finally delivered justice” for Smart.
“The impact that Kristin Smart’s disappearance in 1996 and the investigation has had on the Smart family, on our community … has been profound,” Dow said. “Today’s justice delayed is not justice denied.”
Stan Smart crusaded for justice in his daughter’s disappearance for years and said that with Tuesday’s split verdict, the quest is not over.
“Without Kristin, there’s no joy or happiness in this burden,” he said during a news conference, speaking on behalf of his family. “This has been an agonizing long journey with more downs than ups. But … our faith in the justice system has been renewed.”
Ruben Flores, speaking outside the courthouse after the ankle monitor he had worn for 18 months was removed, said the case “was about feelings.”
“It wasn’t about facts,” said Flores, who did not get to speak with his son before he was taken away. “It was mostly about feelings, and I think that’s what happened with my son. They were carried away with feelings about their family and the girl missing.”
Flores said his wife, Susan, could not be in court when the verdicts of her husband and son were read as she was taking care of a medical issue.
During the trial, San Luis Obispo County Deputy Dist. Atty. Chris Peuvrelle alleged that Paul Flores raped or attempted to rape — and eventually killed — Smart before hiding her remains under his father’s Arroyo Grande house deck. Then, Peuvrelle said, a neighbor reported strange activity with a trailer in the yard in 2020. The prosecutor told jurors that was when father and son moved Smart’s remains as investigators made new inquiries about the property.
But Ruben Flores denied those allegations.
“They’ve had searches and everything,” he said. “They come to my house and say she was buried here, and that’s a surprise to me. They say I dug her up. I am 81 years old, you know. I don’t do too much digging.”
Peuvrelle portrayed Paul Flores as a predator who, even after becoming the focus of the Smart investigation, drugged and raped women he lured to his Los Angeles-area home.
San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s detectives arrested Flores at his San Pedro home in April 2021, decades after identifying him as a person of interest in Smart’s disappearance.
Sanger said jurors had been told “a bunch of conspiracy theories not backed up by facts.” Prosecutors, he argued, had no forensic evidence, including DNA or blood, connecting Flores to any crime.
The case, he said, was built on circumstantial evidence amplified by residents and a true crime podcast, “Your Own Backyard,” that turned up potential witnesses and avenues of investigation.
Harold Mesick, Ruben Flores’ attorney, said during closing arguments that what distinguished this case from most murder cases was the lack of physical evidence and the “demonization” of the Floreses in San Luis Obispo over the years.
“He should have never been charged,” Mesick said Tuesday after his client was cleared. “It would be nice if the community would actually honor the presumption of innocence. There is so much animosity toward this man and his family.”
Mesick said he expects Paul Flores’ attorney to appeal and, in part, use Ruben Flores’ verdict to bolster that argument.
Cal Poly officials called the verdict a “welcome development in the pursuit of justice.”
“Kristin Smart’s disappearance is a tragic part of our Cal Poly community’s history, and our university has closely watched the case, hoping throughout for justice for Kristin and resolution for her family,” Cal Poly President Jeffrey D. Armstrong said in a statement. “Our university community hopes [today’s verdict] brings some comfort and a measure of resolution to Kristin’s loved ones.”
Peuvrelle said during the trial that Paul Flores, a fellow Cal Poly student, had “hunted” Smart for months, noting witness testimony that he had frequently appeared where she was, including her dormitory.
She arrived at the Crandall Street house party about 10:30 p.m., according to testimony during the trial. Others who were there said she never smelled of alcohol but was seen with one drink shortly before midnight after hanging out with Flores. Afterward, she passed out on a lawn for two hours. Peuvrelle alleged that her behavior was consistent with someone drugging her.
As she and two other students began to leave, Flores appeared out of the darkness to help her walk home, witnesses testified. Smart needed help to get up a hill, and once in sight of the dormitories, prosecutors say, Flores promised to get her home. He later insisted he left her within sight of her dorm.
Mesick countered that when Smart fell down, Flores “picked her up.”
“He was doing a good deed,” the defense attorney said. “He was not hunting her.”
But Peuvrelle said the evidence showed that Flores took Smart to his room. Four cadaver dogs would eventually key in on his room because of the “smell of death on his mattress,” the prosecutor told jurors, summarizing testimony from the dog handlers.
Defense lawyers cast the cadaver dogs as junk science, not backed up by any forensic evidence of Smart’s presence in Flores’ room.
The weekend that Smart went missing, the prosecution said, the whereabouts of neither Paul Flores nor Ruben Flores could be verified, but Paul Flores called his father for seven minutes the morning after the event.
“He knew the one person who would help with a dead girl on his bed was his father,” Peuvrelle said. “It was his version of a 911 call.”
San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson pointed out Tuesday that the Smart family never got to see her graduate from college, be married or have children. “So every year that goes by, they continue to suffer for this loss,” he said.
“This case will not be over until Kristin is returned home,” Parkinson said. “We have been committed from the beginning, and I remain committed to that fact. We don’t take a breath. We do not put this aside. We continue to pursue this until we bring Kristin home to the family.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.