The search for Kristin Smart’s remains is continuing after the college classmate who was the last person seen with her before she vanished nearly 25 years ago was charged with her murder.
Suspicion has long followed Paul Flores, now 44, ever since Smart disappeared from the Cal Poly University campus in San Luis Obispo back in 1996 on her way home from a frat party.
Despite being a suspect from day one, investigators say they never had enough evidence to charge Flores over Smart’s disappearance until Tuesday when he was taken into custody on suspicion of murdering the 19-year-old.
His father, Ruben Flores, 80, was also arrested as an accessory to the crime.
The lengthy road to an arrest culminated this week after years of conducting more than 40 search warrants, collecting nearly 200 new pieces of evidence and using modern DNA techniques to retest old evidence.
Since 2019, investigators have also been tracking Flores’ phone and text messages.
And last month, they used ground penetrating radar to search for Smart’s remains at the Flores family home.
Still, the search for Smart’s body continues.
Despite being a suspect from day one, investigators say they never had enough evidence to charge Paul Flores over Kristin Smart’s disappearance until Tuesday when he was taken into custody (above) on suspicion of murdering the 19-year-old
Following the arrests, investigators set up a coroner’s tent at the Flores’ family home in Arroyo Grande and a radar was used to search the ground.
Investigators also used power saws and drills to dismantle a large deck outside the home as they searched underneath it and in the garage.
Suspicion has long followed Paul Flores, now 44, ever since Smart disappeared from the Cal Poly University campus in San Luis Obispo back in 1996 on her way home from a frat party
The search warrants related to the investigation have always remained sealed so it is not clear exactly what evidence led to the arrests.
San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson, however, vowed not to rest until Smart’s body was found, saying: ‘Until we return Kristin to (her family) this is not over.’
He confirmed that forensic physical evidence was located that they believe is linked to Smart.
‘I am confident we have enough of a case to prove beyond a reasonable doubt… I believe we will find Kristin,’ he said.
Smart’s family issued a statement shortly after the arrests calling it a ‘bittersweet day’ but slammed Paul and Ruben Flores for allegedly hiding ‘this horrible secret’ for decades.
‘The knowledge that a father and son, despite our desperate pleas for help, could have withheld this horrible secret for nearly 25 years, denying us the chance to lay our daughter to rest, is an unrelenting and unforgiving pain,’ the family said.
The case dates back to May 25, 1996 when Smart was last seen returning to her dorm at the Cal Poly University campus at about 2am after an off-campus party.
Paul Flores, 44, and his father, Ruben Flores, 80, were arrested on Tuesday in connection with Kristin Smart’s 1996 disappearance
2021: They served another search warrant on Tuesday at Ruben Flores’ home. Investigators appeared to be disassembling a deck outside the home and the sound of power saws and drills could be heard whining in the background
2021: Following the arrests, investigators set up a coroner’s tent at the Flores’ family home in Arroyo Grande and a radar was used to search the ground
A then-19-year-old Flores, who was a fellow freshman at the school, had offered to walk her home from the party.
Smart was not reported missing to the Cal Poly Police Department until three days after she was last seen.
Her dorm mate at the time said police were initially reluctant to take a missing persons report because it was Memorial Day weekend and she might have left the campus.
As the last person to see Smart alive, Flores was under suspicion from the start.
The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office has been in charge of the investigation since a month after Smart vanished.
During the investigation, four different search dogs trained to pick up the smell of human remains led police to Flores’ dorm room. No evidence was ever found in Flores’ room.
Smart was officially declared dead in 2002.
Various search efforts have been carried out over the years, including the excavation of three different hillside locations near the campus in 2016.
At the time, an investigator said a lead strongly suggested her remains might be buried near a large concrete letter ‘P’ that is the school’s landmark but the search ended with no trace of Smart’s remains.
Smart’s family (above in an undated photo) issued a statement shortly after the arrests calling it a ‘bittersweet day’ but slammed Paul and Ruben Flores for allegedly hiding ‘this horrible secret’ for decades
2016: Various search efforts have been carried out over the years, including the excavation of three different hillside locations near the campus in 2016
2020: The Los Angeles Sheriffs Department are pictured seizing evidence from Flores’ LA home in February 2020
The case picked up steam in the past few years after Parkinson, who became sheriff in 2011, ordered a thorough review of the evidence and hired a fulltime cold case detective.
Flores then went from being a ‘person of interest’ to a ‘suspect’ to ‘the prime suspect’, Parkinson said.
The sheriff revealed a new witness came forward in 2019 and, coupled with new evidence, they were able to get a warrant to intercept and monitor Flores’ phone and text messages.
Other warrants enabled investigators to conduct searches on Flores’ home, along with those of his mother, father and sister, in February and April last year, which turned up additional evidence.
In total, Parkinson said they served over 40 search warrants at 16 locations over the years, collected nearly 200 new items of evidence and used modern DNA techniques to test more than three dozen older pieces of evidence.
He said so much evidence was compiled that it would fill three terabytes on a computer hard drive.
Just last month, officers conducted yet another search warrant at the Flores’ family home using ground penetrating radar equipment and cadaver dogs.
Investigators discovered more evidence that resulted in the charges being brought against Paul and Ruben Flores this week.
Flores has remained silent over the decades-long investigation.
He has previously invoked his Fifth Amendment right to not answer questions before a grand jury and in a deposition for a lawsuit that was brought against him in relation to the investigation.
The Smart family filed the $40 million lawsuit in 1996 against Flores and added the the university for allegedly not protecting their daughter. It is pending awaiting a criminal case outcome.
Smart was officially declared dead in 2002 but her body has never been found
Investigators have long said that Flores was the last person to see Smart alive. He told police at the time that he walked Smart back from the party but parted ways with her about a block from her dorm
The sheriff said Flores had nothing to say when he arrested at his home in the Los Angeles suburb of San Pedro early Tuesday morning.
He was taken to a police car in handcuffs wearing pajama bottoms and a surf t-shirt.
His father was arrested as an accessory around the same time at his Arroyo Grande home where investigators then carried out the new search for evidence.
The younger Flores is being held without bond, while his father’s bail was set at $250,000.
The sheriff on Tuesday credited the podcast ‘Your Own Backyard’ for giving the case renewed widespread attention that led to a key witness coming forward.
The podcast’s creator, Chris Lambert, was a musician who grew up in the area and was intrigued by a billboard offering a $75,000 reward for information leading to Smart.
‘Driving past that billboard was a periodic reminder that, oh yeah, they still haven´t found that girl,’ Lambert said in a video posted on the podcast website.
‘It’s different when somebody goes missing in your own backyard.’
Parkinson, who held his press conference at the university, acknowledged missteps by law enforcement early on that hampered the investigation.
He pointed to Smart not officially being treated as a missing person until three days later.
‘There really is no hiding the fact that there was mistakes made early on and it made it much more difficult,’ Parkinson said. ‘You know that first 48 hours is pretty critical in a missing person or a homicide.’
Smart’s family said in their statement that ‘an indifference and lack of resolve we experienced early on set the course for many years.’
Parkinson likened the case to a puzzle where missing pieces are located, leading to new evidence and locations to search that then revealed other information.
‘It’s a very slow process to find each of those little pieces,’ he said.