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Paul Flores convicted in '96 disappearance, murder of California college student Kristin Smart; jury finds his father not guilty

Prosecutors said Smart was killed during an attempted rape by Cal Poly classmate Paul Flores. His father had been accused of helping dispose of the body, which was never found.
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/ Source: The Associated Press

A California man was convicted Tuesday of killing Kristin Smart, a college student who disappeared in 1996, and a separate jury found his father not guilty of disposing of her body.

Paul Flores was found guilty by a jury in Monterey County of first-degree murder and faces 25 years to life. His father, Ruben Flores, had been charged with accessory after the fact. He faced up to three years in prison.

Paul Flores, 45, and his father, 81, had their cases heard simultaneously by different juries. The verdicts were read back to back Tuesday afternoon.

Authorities have never found Smart’s body. She was legally declared dead in 2002.

Kristin Smart
Kristin Smart.via FBI

Paul Flores showed no reaction when the guilty verdict came down, NBC affiliate KSBY of San Luis Obispo reported. His father, who was seated behind him, had no visible reaction.

Several of Smart's relatives were in the courtroom, and her mother and her sister cried for several minutes after the verdicts were read.

"Without Kristin, there is no joy or happiness in this verdict," Smart's father, Stan Smart, said after the verdicts. "After 26 years, with today’s split verdicts, we learned that our quest for justice for Kristin will continue."

San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow said that "today, justice delayed is not justice denied."

Paul Flores is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 9, KSBY reported.

Prosecutors said Paul Flores killed Smart, 19, during an attempted rape on May 25, 1996, in his dorm room at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. He was the last person seen with a very intoxicated Smart, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors alleged that Smart’s body may have been buried under a deck behind Ruben Flores’ home in Arroyo Grande.

Kristen Smart's disappearance

  • Paul Flores was convicted of killing Kristin Smart during an attempted rape May 25, 1996, at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, where they were both students.
  • Prosecutors say Ruben Flores, Paul Flores' father, disposed of her body in his yard before he moved it.
  • Authorities have never found Smart’s body. She was legally declared dead in 2002.
  • Father and son were long considered suspects but were arrested only last year, after the investigation was reactivated.

He was accused of helping bury Smart and of digging up the remains and moving them years later, prosecutors said.

Ruben Flores said outside court after Tuesday’s verdicts that there was no evidence against him or his son.

“We don’t know what happened to their daughter,” he said.

Paul Flores had long been considered a suspect, but prosecutors arrested him and his father only last year, after the investigation was reactivated.

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson acknowledged missteps by detectives over the years and credited a popular podcast about Smart’s disappearance, called Your Own Backyard, with helping unearth information and inspiring witnesses to speak with authorities.

Investigators have conducted dozens of searches over two decades, but they only recently turned their attention to Ruben Flores’ home, about 12 miles south of Cal Poly.

Paul Flores stands during his murder trial in Monterey County Superior Court in Salinas, Calif., on July 18, 2022.
Paul Flores during his murder trial in Monterey County Superior Court in Salinas, Calif., on July 18.Daniel Dreifuss / Monterey County Weekly via AP file

Behind latticework under the deck of his large house on a dead-end street off Tally Ho Road, archaeologists working for police in March 2021 found a soil disturbance about the size of a casket and the presence of human blood, prosecutors said.

The blood was too degraded to extract a DNA sample from. While a blood expert said it was human blood, the test used did not rule out the possibility it was from a ferret or an ape, although court records said no remains of such an animal were found there.

Attorney James Murphy has sued Ruben Flores on behalf of Smart’s parents, alleging he and unnamed accomplices moved the body four days after investigators searched his house in February 2020. Investigators did not dig beneath the deck until more than a year later.

San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Craig Van Rooyen ordered the pair to trial after a 22-day preliminary hearing in which he found a “strong suspicion” that the father and son committed the crimes they were charged with and that a grave that once held Smart’s remains existed under Ruben Flores’ deck.

Attorney Harold Mesick, who represents Ruben Flores, has said the evidence unearthed was ambiguous. He said soil under the deck was dumped there after it was excavated to lay a foundation nearby.

“It was a hot mess, because it’s been previously excavated,” Mesick said. “If we even call it evidence, it is so minimal as to shock the conscience.”

A juror in Ruben Flores’ case was dismissed Thursday after he told Monterey County Judge Superior Court Jennifer O’Keefe that he had discussed the case for strictly spiritual guidance with his priest because it was causing him stress, KSBY reported.

The juror said he did not discuss specifics of the case. An alternate juror was sworn in, and O’Keefe told the jury to “begin deliberations anew” to catch the juror up, according to KSBY.

O’Keefe took over the case after Van Rooyen in March granted a change of venue request, determining the defendants could not get a fair trial in San Luis Obispo County, KSBY reported. The cases were tried in Monterey County Superior Court in Salinas.

The prosecution rested its case against the Floreses on Sept. 20 after more than two months of witness testimony, according to The Tribune newspaper of San Luis Obispo.

KSBY reported that attorneys representing the defendants rested their cases on Sept. 27.

Parkinson, the San Luis Obispo County sheriff, said Tuesday that the case is not closed with the conviction.

"This case is not over. This case will not be over until Kristin is returned home," he said.