Calif.’s SALINAS — More than a year after being arrested on a murder charge alongside his father, who is accused of aiding in the concealment of her body, and Kristin Smart, the college freshman who vanished from a California campus 25 years ago, the last person seen with her is now on trial.
The case against Paul Flores and his father, Ruben Flores, who is charged of being an accessory, started with opening arguments on Monday in Monterey County Superior Court in Salinas. They both entered a “not guilty” plea.
According to the San Luis Obispo Tribune, Deputy District Attorney Christopher Peuvrelle described Smart’s Memorial Day weekend 1996 disappearance from California Polytechnic State University.
Peuvrelle began his remarks by stating that “Stan and Denise Smart sent their oldest daughter Kristin to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo in 1995.” Every Sunday during her first year, they eagerly anticipated receiving a call from her; it became a ritual.
According to Peuvrelle, the call didn’t come that weekend.
Since Smart’s body has never been found, the trial’s focus will probably center on the unsolved mystery of how she vanished from the picturesque campus nestled up against a lush coastal mountain range.
In their dorm room at Cal Poly, where both were first-year students, on May 25, 1996, the younger Flores, now 45, is accused of killing the 19-year-old during an attempted rape, according to the prosecution. In the nearby home of Arroyo Grande, his father, who is now 81, is accused of helping bury the murdered student and then digging up and moving the body.
Despite the fact that Paul Flores had been a suspect in the murder for some time, it wasn’t until the investigation was reopened in 2021 that prosecutors decided to arrest both him and his father.
Sheriff Ian Parkinson of San Luis Obispo County admitted that detectives had made mistakes over the years, and he gave “Your Own Backyard,” a well-known podcast about Smart’s disappearance, credit for helping to uncover new information and motivating witnesses to cooperate with investigators.
Over the past two decades, investigators have conducted dozens of searches, but they have recently focused on Ruben Flores’ home, which is located about 12 miles (20 kilometers) south of Cal Poly in the town of Arroyo Grande.
Archaeologists working for the police discovered a soil disturbance in March 2021 that was about the size of a casket and the presence of human blood, according to the prosecution. This was hidden behind lattice work beneath the deck of his large house on a dead end street off Tally Ho Road. No DNA could be extracted from the blood due to its degradation.
After a 22-day preliminary hearing, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Craig Van Rooyen found there was “strong suspicion” the father and son committed the crimes they were charged of and that Smart’s remains were once buried in a grave under Ruben Flores’ deck. He then ordered the two to stand trial.
The evidence discovered was ambiguous, according to Ruben Flores’ attorney Harold Mesick. He claimed that after being dumped there after being excavated for a nearby foundation, the soil beneath the deck had been added.
Because it had previously been excavated, it was “a hot mess,” according to Mesick. It is so little evidence, if we can even call it that, that it shocks the conscience.
On May 25, 1996, Smart and Paul Flores were last seen walking home from an off-campus party where she had gotten drunk. Paul Flores was the last person to be seen with Smart.
When he first spoke with police three days later, he downplayed his interactions with her, claiming that she had made it to her dorm on her own. However, other witnesses walked that she had passed out earlier in the night and that Flores had helped hold her up as they walked their power back to campus.
When investigators spoke with Flores, he had a black eye. Court documents state that he claimed to have acquired it while playing basketball with friends, but his friends refuted this claim. In a later version of his story, he claimed that he had bumped his head while working on his car.
Prosecutors provided evidence that four cadaver dogs stopped at Flores’ room and alerted to the scent of death close to his bed at a preliminary hearing last year.
Van Rooyen granted the defense’s request to have the trial moved out of San Luis Obispo County because it was unlikely that the Flores family would receive a fair trial in the roughly 47,000-person city given their level of notoriety.
A small city in the agricultural region where some of John Steinbeck’s most well-known novels were set, Salinas, 110 miles (177 kilometers) to the north, received the case.
In the 1990s, when Paul Flores was the main suspect but was never charged with a crime, defense attorney Robert Sanger claimed that the evidence was still the same.
According to Sanger in court papers, the evidence “then and now is based on speculation and not proof of facts.”
Sanger has made attempts to implicate others in the killing, pointing out that Scott Peterson, who was later found guilty in a high-profile trial of killing his pregnant wife and the unborn child she was carrying, was a student at Cal Poly at the time.
Alternative suspects cannot be suggested unless Sanger can show evidence of their direct involvement, according to trial judge Jennifer O’Keefe, who is a year younger than Kristin Smart would be today.
The evidence against each defendant was evaluated by separate juries. About four months are predicted for the trial.