Prosecutors are trying to prove the 1996 murder without a body

LOS ANGELES– Kristin Smart’s smiling face still watches from a billboard outside the law office of attorney James Murphy Jr. more than 25 years after the freshman disappeared from a campus on the Central Coast scenic California.

It used to offer a $75,000 reward to help find the student, but these days the billboard simply reads, “Justice for Kristin.”

Smart is still missing, but the man last seen with her at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo in 1996 is on trial more than a year after he was arrested for murder with his father, accused of having helped hide it. body.

Opening statements are scheduled for Monday in Monterey County Superior Court in Salinas in the trial of Paul Flores and his father, Ruben Flores, who is charged as an accessory. Both men have pleaded not guilty.

The young Flores, now 45, killed the 19-year-old in an attempted rape on May 25, 1996 in his dorm at Cal Poly, where both were freshmen, the authorities said. prosecutors. His father, now 81, allegedly helped bury the slain student behind his home in the nearby community of Arroyo Grande, then dug up the remains and moved them.

Paul Flores had long been considered a suspect in the murder, but prosecutors only arrested him and his father in 2021 after the investigation was relaunched.

San Luis Obispo Sheriff Ian Parkinson has acknowledged detective missteps over the years and credited a popular podcast about Smart’s disappearance called “Your Own Backyard” with helping uncover new information and inspiring witnesses to speak with investigators.

Smart’s remains were never found and the mystery of how she disappeared from the scenic campus nestled against a verdant coastal mountain range will likely be at the heart of the trial.

Investigators have conducted dozens of searches over two decades, but have focused their attention for the past two years on the home of Ruben Flores about 20 miles south of Cal Poly in the community of Arroyo Grande.

Behind the trellis under the bridge of his large house on a dead end street near Tally Ho Road, archaeologists working for the police in March 2021 discovered a coffin-sized ground disturbance and the presence of human blood, prosecutors said.

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

Murphy, who sued father and son on behalf of Smart’s parents, scoffed at the idea that it was anything other than human blood.

“The size of the area the blood was found in would make it a prehistoric ferret that would be found in Jurassic Park,” Murphy said. “When was the last time you drove down Tally Ho Road in Arroyo Grande and saw a primate?

The lawsuit Murphy filed against Ruben Flores alleged that “under cover of darkness” the father and unnamed accomplices moved the body four days after investigators searched his home in February 2020. Investigators don’t haven’t conducted their digs under the bridge for over a year. later.

San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Craig Van Rooyen ordered the couple’s trial after a 22-day preliminary hearing in which he uncovered a ‘strong suspicion’ that the father and son committed the crimes of which they were accused, that a tomb existed under Reuben Flores. bridge and it once contained the remains of Smart.

San Luis Obispo prosecutors, defense attorneys and sheriff’s deputies are constrained by a court order barring them from discussing the case.

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

“It was a hot mess because it’s already been searched,” Mesick said. “If we call it evidence, it’s so minimal that it shocks the conscience.”

Paul Flores was the last person seen with Smart on May 25, 1996 as he walked her home after an off-campus party where she got drunk.

He played down his interactions with her when he first spoke with police three days later, saying she made it to her dormitory on her own, although other witnesses said that she had passed out earlier that night and that Flores had helped hold her up as they returned. on campus.

Flores had a black eye when interviewed by investigators. He told them he got it while playing basketball with friends, who denied his account, according to court records. He later changed his story to say that he hit his head while working on his car.

At a preliminary hearing last year, prosecutors presented evidence that four cadaver dogs stopped in Flores’ bedroom and raised the smell of death near his bed.

Van Rooyen barred prosecutors from presenting evidence alleging Paul Flores had a history of harassment, inappropriate touching and sexually aggressive behavior towards women, including allegations that he drugged and raped four women in the area of Los Angeles years after Smart’s disappearance. Over the years, the women called him “Chester the abuser” and “psycho Paul”, according to a court document.

Van Rooyen ruled in favor of a defense request to move the trial out of San Luis Obispo County because it was unlikely the Flores could enjoy a fair trial with so much notoriety in the city of about 47. 000 inhabitants.

The case was moved 110 miles (177 kilometers) north to Salinas, a small town in the farming region where John Steinbeck set some of his best-known novels.

Defense lawyer Robert Sanger previously said the evidence remained the same as in the 1990s, when Paul Flores was the prime suspect but had never been charged with a crime.

“The evidence then and now is based on speculation and not evidence of fact,” Sanger said in court documents.

Sanger tried to pin the murder on someone else – noting that Scott Peterson, who was later convicted in a sensational trial of killing his pregnant wife and the fetus she was carrying – was also a college student of Cal Poly at the time.

Trial Judge Jennifer O’Keefe – who is a year younger than Kristin Smart would be today – however barred suggestions of alternative suspects unless Sanger could provide proof of their direct involvement.

Separate juries were selected to weigh the evidence against each defendant. The trial is expected to last about four months.

Leave a Reply