‘Prime suspect,’ his father charged in 1996 disappearance, murder of student Kristin Smart

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Nearly 25 years after California college student Kristin Smart vanished while walking to her dorm room, police have arrested a longtime person of interest in the case, as well as his father, who is accused of helping cover up the crime.

Paul Ruben Flores, 44, of San Pedro, was arrested at his home Tuesday and charged with murder in the May 25, 1996, disappearance of Smart, who was a freshman at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said Tuesday. Flores, who, like Smart, was a 19-year-old freshman in 1996, was named a “prime suspect” in her disappearance last month.

Flores’ father, Ruben Ricardo Flores, was arrested at his Arroyo Grande home, which was being searched again Tuesday, along with Paul Flores’ home. The elder Flores, who turned 80 on Friday, is charged as an accessory to murder.

“It has been 24, almost 25, years since Kristin went missing,” Parkinson said as he addressed reporters on the Cal Poly campus, blocks from where Smart disappeared. “Twenty-four years without a resolution until today.”

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Parkinson offered few details of what led to the arrests, citing the defendants’ due process and the fact that search warrants in the case have been sealed by a judge. He confirmed that forensic evidence has been recovered that authorities believe ties the pair to Smart.

“I will say this. We have not recovered Kristin,” the sheriff said. “We will continue to focus on finding her remains, regardless of any court action. We know that is an important issue with the family.”

A reporter asked if investigators are any closer to finding her body.

“Yes, we are. But only time will tell,” Parkinson said.

A cloud of suspicion has long hung over Paul Flores, who was the last person to see Smart before she vanished. The missing young woman was last seen alive near the intersection of Perimeter Road and Grand Avenue on the Cal Poly campus, just a few hundred feet from the safety of her dorm building.

Parkinson said he spoke Tuesday morning to Smart’s parents, who are relieved to finally have arrests in the case. They still anxiously await the day they can bury their daughter.

“For over 24 years, we have waited for this bittersweet day,” the Smart family said in a statement obtained by The Associated Press. “It is impossible to put into words what this day means for our family; we pray it is the first step to bringing our daughter home.

“While Kristin’s loving spirit will always live in our hearts, our life without her hugs, laughs and smiles is a heartache that never abates.”

An end of year party

Smart decided to attend a party the night of May 24, which was the Friday of the Memorial Day weekend. Her friends, who dropped her off a couple of blocks away, didn’t want to attend but Kristin was determined to celebrate the end of her freshman year.

Friends and family described Smart as fiercely independent.

“I can still see her standing there after we dropped her off, a little mad, I think, that I wouldn’t go with her,” her friend, Margarita Campos, told the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune in 1997. “Someone who wasn’t as independent as Kristin wouldn’t have gone to a party alone.”

Witnesses told authorities that Smart was found passed out on a neighboring lawn around 2 a.m. on May 25. While some said they saw the young woman drinking that night, others reported that they did not, leading to speculation that she might have been drugged.

A couple of students leaving the party helped her to her feet and started walking her back to her dorm. A third student soon joined them and offered to finish walking Smart home.

That student was Paul Flores.

“Kristin never returned to her dorm room that night and has not been seen or heard from since that time,” Parkinson said.

Watch Tuesday’s news conference below.

Critics, including Smart’s family, have said over the years that campus police were slow to investigate the missing young woman’s disappearance, assuming that she had gone off on her own for the holiday weekend. According to 48 Hours, which profiled the case in November, Campos and other students expressed concern that Smart hadn’t returned from the party but said their worries were largely ignored by officers.

It was not until two days after Smart vanished that officers called her parents to ask if they had seen their daughter. Smart had been missing for four days by the time Cal Poly police officers began investigating in earnest, the news program reported.

Campus authorities waited nearly a week to speak to Paul Flores, who told investigators that he’d walked Smart as far as his dorm, San Lucia Hall. He said he let her walk alone the rest of the way to her own dorm.

An attorney for the Smart family told 48 Hours that when sheriff’s investigators brought cadaver dogs to the campus, they alerted, independently of one another, on the scent of human decay in Flores’ room and on his bed.

In addition, Flores was booked two days after Smart’s disappearance for an outstanding DUI warrant in Arroyo Grande. In his booking photo, pictured below, he has a black eye.

Flores allegedly told three different stories about how he got injured, authorities said.

The case was put before a grand jury five months after Smart vanished, but no charges were brought against Flores or anyone else, 48 Hours reported.

Smart’s parents were not deterred. They filed a civil lawsuit against Flores, who was deposed in the case in 1997. He refused to answer questions, invoking his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination more than two dozen times.

A podcast helps crack the case

Parkinson said Tuesday that San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Office detectives took over the case from campus police the month after Smart disappeared. They have been the lead agency, with assistance from the FBI and a variety of state and local departments, since that time. When he took office in 2011, he had cold case detectives conduct a complete review of all the physical evidence in the cold case.

Since Parkinson has been sheriff, detectives have executed more than 40 search warrants, searched 16 locations in connection with the case and gone over every piece of physical evidence again.

A total of 37 items seized as evidence in the early days of the case have been submitted for modern DNA testing, and more than 190 new items of physical evidence have been gathered, Parkinson said. More than 130 people have been either reinterviewed or interviewed for the first time.

“In late 2016, we discovered additional evidence that confirmed that Paul (Flores) was the suspect in the disappearance,” the sheriff said. “In 2019, we interviewed several witnesses that had not been previously interviewed.”

Parkinson credited podcaster Chris Lambert and his podcast, “Your Own Backyard: The Disappearance of Kristin Smart,” with bringing some of the witnesses to light.

Lambert and one of those witnesses, Mary Lassiter, told 48 Hours a chilling story about a home she rented in Arroyo Grande in the fall of 1996, just a few months after Smart’s disappearance. Lassiter said she began receiving strange postcards that appeared to be meant for her landlord.

Listen to Lambert’s nine-episode podcast about the Kristin Smart case below.

The cards begged the homeowner and her son to come forward with information about Smart’s disappearance.

The owner of the home was Susan Flores, Paul Flores’ mother.

Lassiter also told Lambert that she was washing her car shortly after moving into the rental home. There, in the driveway, she found an earring.

According to 48 Hours, Lassiter said the earring appeared to match a necklace Smart wore in a photo used on missing persons fliers and billboards.

Lassiter turned the earring over to San Luis Obispo detectives — but the earring has since been lost.

Lassiter also told Lambert of a strange beeping she heard coming from her backyard every morning for months. At 4:20 a.m. each day, the beeping would begin and continue for several minutes.

To Lassiter, it sounded like the alarm on a digital watch. No matter how she searched, however, she couldn’t find the source in the backyard, which was mostly concrete with some soil-filled planter boxes cut into the concrete.

“It drove (Lassiter) crazy and she went out there many times in the middle of the night to try to find it with sticks, sticking (them) down into the planter boxes down in the soil,” Lambert told 48 Hours.

Listen to the 48 Hours podcast about Kristin Smart below, or find the episode here on Paramount+.

After a few months, the beeping stopped. Lambert theorized that the watch battery went dead.

Lambert said when he told Smart’s mother, Denise Smart, about the beeping, she stared at him in shock.

Denise Smart said her daughter, who worked as a lifeguard at the university recreation center, set the alarm on her watch to wake her every morning in time to get ready for her shift.

Her shift began at 5 a.m.

Law enforcement officials and attorneys for Smart’s family have had the backyard of Susan Flores’ house searched multiple times over the years but, as of November, had not excavated the area, 48 Hours reported.

In 2016, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office officials excavated part of the Cal Poly campus, looking for possible remains and other evidence in the case. The Times reported that over the past four years, cold case detectives have focused on methods through which Paul Flores could have disposed of her body.

They did not believe the then-19-year-old could have gotten rid of her remains alone.

Parkinson said the new witnesses and new evidence allowed detectives to secure a court order authorizing the “interception and monitoring” of Paul Flores’ cellphone and text messages. They were also able to secure multiple search warrants, including four warrants that were executed simultaneously in February 2020 at the homes of Paul Flores, Susan Flores, Ruben Flores and Paul Flores’ sister.

The warrants sought “specific items of evidence” at four locations, two of them in San Luis Obispo County, one in Los Angeles County and the fourth in Washington state.

First full day of the excavation project on the Cal Poly campus as part of the Kristin Smart disappearance...

Posted by San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office on Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Second full day of the excavation project on the Cal Poly campus as part of the Kristin Smart disappearance...

Posted by San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office on Thursday, September 8, 2016

“Physical evidence recovered during these searches led to the service of an additional search warrant at Paul Flores’ residence in April of last year,” the sheriff said. “During the search warrant, detectives recovered evidence relating to the murder of Kristin Smart.”

Over the past year, detectives have also tracked down and examined all the vehicles owned by Paul Flores and his father in 1996. One truck had been sold since Smart’s disappearance and another had been reported stolen by Paul Flores.

A VW Golf Cabriolet was pulled from Ruben Flores’s garage last month, when a second search warrant was executed at his home, the Times reported.

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Parkinson said additional evidence in Smart’s killing was found during that second search.

“As a result of this evidence, a San Luis Obispo superior court judge signed two arrest warrants and two additional search warrants,” the sheriff said.

Father and son were arrested simultaneously at their homes around 7:30 a.m. Tuesday. The latest searches of both properties were being conducted as Parkinson announced their arrests.

“We could be there for the remainder of the day, or even into tomorrow, depending on what they find,” Parkinson said.

Paul Flores is being held without bail. Ruben Flores is being held in lieu of bail set at $250,000.