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 oversight 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 hidden there for years.
Smart was 19 when she vanished on May 25, 1996, after walking toward the college dormitories with Flores after a party. Her body has never been found, but she was legally declared dead in 2002.
Her disappearance and the subsequent 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. Paul 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 could serve as much as life in prison when he is sentenced Dec. 9.
Speaking outside the courthouse after the ankle monitor he had worn for the last 18 months was removed, Ruben Flores 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 District Attorney 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.
Peuvrelle portrayed 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.
Robert Sanger, Flores’ attorney, 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, and he pointed out that nothing was found in the soil below Ruben Flores’ deck.
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 of wrongdoing. “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.
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. Shortly after, 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 the 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 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 — he knew his roommate was away for four days — and then raped or attempted to rape her and eventually killed her. Four cadaver dogs would eventually key in on Flores’ room because of the “smell of death on his mattress,” Peuvrelle told jurors, summarizing testimony from the dog handlers.
The defense lawyers cast the cadaver dogs as junk science, not backed up by any forensic evidence of Smart’s presence in Flores’ room.
Jurors also heard from two women — Sarah Doe and Rhonda Doe — who testified that Flores drugged and raped them decades after Smart vanished. The women, who took the witness stand last month under pseudonyms to protect their privacy, testified that Flores sexually assaulted them in Los Angeles in 2008 and 2011, respectively.
In their cases, the prosecutor noted that Flores had offered to give the women rides home after meeting them, only to drug and repeatedly rape them at his house. Showing the jury an image found on Flores’ computer of a gagged woman, Peuvrelle added that the two witnesses had testified that they, too, had been gagged with the same ball gag.
The prosecution alleged that the whereabouts of neither Paul Flores nor Ruben Flores could be verified the weekend of the party, 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.”