Kristin Smart went missing 26 years ago. A father and son now face trial over her death

Paul Flores and his father Ruben have been charged respectively with murder and accessory to murder in the death of Kristin Smart, who was a student when she went missing in 1996. Clémence Michallon reports

Saturday 23 July 2022 20:18 BST
A sign raises public awareness in the case of missing student Kristin Smart in the California coast town of Arroyo Grande in May 2006
A sign raises public awareness in the case of missing student Kristin Smart in the California coast town of Arroyo Grande in May 2006 (Shutterstock)

Kristin Smart went missing 26 years ago. She was 19 years old, and a freshman in college. She was wearing what the FBI described as a grey half T-shirt, black surfing shorts, and red Puma shoes. She went to an off-campus party, and was never seen again.

Smart’s case remained open and unsolved for a quarter of a century. Then, in April 2021, authorities arrested two men they allege were responsible for Smart’s disappearance: Paul Flores, 45, who has now been charged with Smart’s murder, and his father Ruben Flores, 80, who has been charged with accessory after the fact to the crime of murder, for allegedly helping his son to conceal Smart’s body. The case is now going to trial. Paul Flores was an early suspect in the case, and was the subject of a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Smart’s family in the 1990s; he has denied any involvement, and the case was dropped after he pleaded the fifth amendment.

In the intervening years, musician Chris Lambert started a podcast investigating Smart’s disappearance. Your Own Backyard began airing in 2019. Lambert grew up close to where Smart went missing; he remembered an initial swell of interest in the case followed by relative silence. With his podcast, he wanted to tell the full story of Smart’s disappearance, as well as bringing the case to national attention. When officials announced the arrests of the two suspects in 2021, they credited Lambert and his podcast with having brought in new “valuable” information, helping to usher in the biggest development in the case so far.

Kristin Smart was born on 20 February 1977 in Augsburg, Germany. Her parents, Stan and Denise Smart, were teachers who worked with children of military personnel in the region. “She came into this world with an adventurous spirit that never left her,” reads her biography on the website of the Kristin Smart Scholarship, which was set up in her memory. “She believed in her dreams and always seemed to know the right steps needed to reach them.” As a high school student, she spent one summer just outside London and another as an exchange student in Venezuela. The summer before she started college, she worked as a lifeguard and camp counsellor in Hawaii, which she called her “dream job”.

At the time of her disappearance, Smart was a student at California Polytechnic State University (also known as Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo, California. On 24 May 1996, Smart and her friend Margarita Campos, along with other acquaintances, attended a get-together at someone’s house off-campus, Campos said in August 2021 during a preliminary hearing in the charges faced by Paul and Ruben Flores. After that gathering, Smart wanted to stay out, but Campos was tired and needed to use the bathroom, Campos testified, according to KSBY. Campos headed back. That was the last time she saw her roommate.

Smart attended another party, thrown by members of a fraternity. According to The New York Times, acquaintances said in later interviews that she was last seen with Paul Flores, a student who attended the same college as her, at around 2am on 25 May. Prosecutors have contended that Paul Flores killed Smart later that night while attempting to rape her. Paul Flores has denied the charges against him and pleaded not guilty. (His father has also entered a not guilty plea.)

Prior to his arrest, Paul Flores was described as a person of interest in the case. A forensic examination of his dorm room was conducted on 24 June 1996, according to testimony given by Rick Neufeld, a retired sheriff’s detective, during a preliminary hearing for Paul and Ruben Flores, per the Santa Ynez Valley News. In 1997, the Smart family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Paul Flores; a video of his deposition shows him pleading the fifth and refusing to answer questions, confirming only basic details such as his full name, date of birth, and social security number.

Your Own Backyard turned its focus on Paul Flores beginning in its second episode. In episode two, titled “The Only Suspect”, people who knew Flores in high school allege he was known to display inappropriate behaviour around women. One woman tells Lambert that Flores was nicknamed “Scary Paul” by some; another tells him Flores “wasn’t right with girls”.

“You wouldn’t want to be alone in a room with him,” the second woman says in the same episode. “You wouldn’t let any of your friends be drunk around him. Those were kind of unspoken things.”

Lambert recounts Paul Flores turning up two days after Smart’s disappearance to the Arroyo Grande Police Department in relation to an outstanding arrest warrant pertaining to a traffic citation. Paul Flores, Lambert says, was photographed with a black eye – as seen in the booking photo taken at the time. According to Lambert, Paul Flores gave inconsistent explanations as to how he had sustained the injury: he told police he had got it the day the mugshot was taken, a Monday, while playing basketball with a friend. But that friend told police he had seen Flores the Sunday before, at which point Flores was already sporting the black eye and told his friend he didn’t know what had caused it. Asked about this discrepancy during a subsequent interview, Flores told police he had got the black eye in the early hours of Monday while trying to remove the stereo from his car, Lambert says.

Paul Flores (left), 45, and his father Ruben Flores (right), 81 (San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office)
A missing person poster for Kristin Smart, provided by the FBI (FBI)

For 25 years, the investigation remained open, without any arrests. Then came Lambert and Your Own Backyard.

Lambert, a singer-songwriter, had never produced a true-crime podcast before he started Your Own Backyard. He says in the first episode, “A Face on a Billboard”, that prior to creating the show, he was periodically reminded of Smart’s disappearance by way of a billboard close to the Arroyo Grande Creek – “faded by years of sunlight” and “easy to miss now unless you’re really looking for it” – that asked for information relating to the case. He searched for a deep dive into the disappearance, but couldn’t find anything that seemed truly exhaustive. So he resolved to start learning everything he could about the case himself.

The original release of Your Own Backyard spanned eight episodes. From episode four to episode eight, the show opened with this note from the Smart family: “The statute of limitations in this case has expired on everything except murder. Anyone who comes forward with information will not be charged with any crime.” When authorities announced the arrests of Paul and Reuben Flores in April 2021, they openly credited Lambert and the podcast with helping bring forward what the Associated Press called “new evidence” and “valuable witnesses”.

Kristin Smart was last seen walking back to her dorm from an off-campus party on 25 May 1996 (Sacramento Bee/Shutterstock)

“What Chris did with the podcast was put it out nationally to bring in new information,” San Luis Obispo County sheriff Ian Parkinson said, according to the AP, which noted he hadn’t elaborated on the new evidence. “It did produce some information that I believe was valuable.”

An online statement by Smart’s family also praised Lambert and his work: “Our sincere thanks goes out to Chris Lambert for keeping Kristin’s story relevant through his podcast,” it reads. “We owe him our gratitude for informing millions of people that Kristin is still missing and deserves justice.”

At a hearing in July 2021, Chris Peurvelle, a deputy district attorney in San Luis Obispo County, said a search of Paul Flores’s home in 2020 had turned up substances that can be used as date-rape drugs, as well as videos, on a hard drive labelled “Practice”, of Paul Flores having sex with women who appear to be incapacitated, The Atascadero News and the AP reported. The prosecution in Paul Flores’s case tried to add two rape charges against him, although a judge ruled against the move, saying there wasn’t enough evidence suggesting Paul Flores had raped Smart. Defence lawyer Robert Sanger denounced the attempt to add the charges as a publicity stunt, the AP reported at the time.

As part of the same effort, the prosecution unsealed a summary of the case in which more than two dozen women recounted incidents pertaining to Paul Flores, which the AP described as “disturbing and dangerous encounters” that included “sexual assaults while they were semi-conscious and felt drugged” and ranged “from creepy stalking to unwanted touching to aggressive sexual behavior to, more recently, being drugged and raped after meeting him at bars”.

Sanger has maintained his client’s innocence and said: “The actual evidence in the case relating to Kristin Smart’s disappearance is no different than existed in the 1990s. The evidence then and now is based on speculation and not proof of facts.”

Jury selection was completed between late June and early July, after being delayed following a health concern relating to one of the participants in the trial, KSBY reported at the time. The father and son will be tried concurrently but by separate juries. Opening statements began on Monday 18 July in Monterey County Superior Court in Salinas, California.

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