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Attorneys spar in Kristin Smart murder trial opening, 25 years in the making

A murder trial in California digs at the question of how much physical evidence is needed to prove a murder occurred despite many years and no body.

SALINAS, Calif. (CN) — More than a quarter of a century since Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student Kristin Smart disappeared, California prosecutors face two juries in a courtroom in the small Monterey County city of Salinas to answer how much evidence is needed to prove a murder occurred.

Their job is to prove to a jury that Paul Flores, now 45, was responsible for killing Smart — a California Polytechnic University student missing since 1996 — and, to another jury, that his father, Ruben Flores, now 81, helped him hide Smart’s body. The investigation in San Luis Obispo County has never gone completely cold, given a complaint filed by District Attorney Dan Dow led to the arrest of the Floreses. Dow believes Paul Flores killed Smart while attempting to rape her after an off-campus fraternity party. Smart has not been seen since the party despite extensive searches conducted throughout the county between 1996 and 2007.

The case has spanned 26 years, during which time local law enforcement worked with the FBI to try to collect evidence or a confession from Flores, using informants and wiretapping. Smart’s disappearance resulted in state legislation, including the Kristin Smart Campus Security Act, passed unanimously and signed into law by then-Governor Pete Wilson. It requires all publicly funded educational institutions in California to have security services make agreements with local police departments regarding cases possibly involving violence against students. 

Until now, little physical evidence in the case has been released to the public — a fact on which Flores’ defense attorney Robert Sanger has focused. But prosecutors say they will release new evidence and witnesses in a trial expected to last into October.

Montery County Superior Court Judge Jennifer O'Keefe oversees the People v. Paul Flores case moved from San Luis Obispo County. (Daniel Dreifuss/ Monterey County Weekly)

Monterey County Superior Court Judge Jennifer O’Keefe is overseeing the case, moved from San Luis Obispo County due to high publicity in the area where Smart attended college and disappeared and where Paul Flores’ parents still reside. 

In about 90 minutes, San Luis Obispo Deputy District Attorney Christopher Peuvrelle took the jury down the timeline of 25 years, pointing to the defendant sitting across from him wearing a three-piece suit and a white mask, many times.

Peuvrelle told the jury Smart’s family has mourned her disappearance ever since the first Sunday she missed a weekly phone call with them.

Prosecutor Chris Peuvrelle makes an opening statement on the first day of the Paul Flores trial in a Monterey County Court room.(Daniel Dreifuss/ Monterey County Weekly)

“1,359 Sundays have passed since May 26 of 1996,” he said. “They were a very tight-knit family and they all looked forward to that phone call.” He described Smart as a beloved older sibling and having many friends at Cal Poly, who left a happy voicemail for her mother the day before she disappeared about good news she would share.

The family never heard her news or her voice again. Peuvrelle walked through the events of May 25 and early in the morning May 26, when a drunk Smart was found on the ground at a party and escorted toward the campus. Paul Flores was the last person seen with Smart, having offered to take her to her dorm room — located in the opposite direction from his dorm building — since she was incapacitated. The next morning, her roommates said she had never returned and everything she owned including ID cards, credit cards and all her clothing and school possessions were in her room. They knew “it was not like her,” Peuvrelle said.

Although for many students who knew Smart “a lot of life has gone by,” Peuvrelle said witnesses will come forward who worked with law enforcement for years to try to solve her disappearance. He told the jury evidence will show Paul Flores expressed interest in Smart and was seen talking to her more than once at the party before persuading two people to let him take her to her dorm alone. He said Flores' only phone call that weekend was to his father, and neither men could account for their whereabouts that weekend. He also noted detectives accused Flores of lying about details of that night, but never had enough evidence to arrest him. 

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Sanger, Paul Flores' attorney, grabbed onto that fact to pick apart the prosecution's statements hinting at evidence to be heard later, since no physical evidence has been revealed linking his client to Smart. Extensive searches of both Flores' residences and excavations of three areas near San Luis Obispo have yet to yield a body. 

But Dow has said investigators have a decent idea of where to continue to look. And Peuvrelle pointed to a mattress in Flores’ dorm which drew the attention of multiple cadaver dogs and an excavation at his father’s home where Smart's body is believed to have been buried and later removed. 

Peuvrelle said three women will testify about having been drugged and raped by Paul Flores at his LA County home between 2005 and 2011, including one woman who said her rape kit positively matched Flores’ DNA.  

A 2019 podcast by musician Chris Lambert titled “Your Own Backyard” that recounts Smart’s probable abduction and death, has been downloaded over 12 million times and will play a significant part in the trial. Sanger said investigators hoped the podcast would provoke conversations among the Flores family, whose phones were tapped before 2020. A recorded conversation which the prosecution played for the jury showed that Flores’ mother told her son to listen to the podcast to find “wherever we can punch holes in it, if we can — you’re the one that can tell me.” Sanger said this was the only piece of evidence the prosecution has extensive tapping of the family's phones. 

Defense attorney Robert Sanger addresses the jury in opening statements on the first day of the Paul Flores trial in Monterey County. (Daniel Dreifuss/ Monterey County Weekly)

Sanger said the Flores family has been harassed for decades, from shouting and vigils by groups concerned about Smart’s case at their Arroyo Grande homes. He said the local media in San Luis Obispo worked to portray Paul Flores as Smart’s killer, and called the entire case an attempt by law enforcement to blame his client despite the lack of a body.

Sanger also made character judgments about Smart, saying she engaged in “high-risk behavior” and told people she was a model. When he said Smart was known to go out with men of different ages, Peuvrelle objected — but O’Keefe allowed the statement to stand. 

The prosecution’s evidence is being heard this week. While both trials are happening at the same time, Paul Flores and his father have separate juries.

Many records in the case remain sealed. Numerous news outlets filed last week to unseal the records, including The San Luis Obispo Tribune, ABC News, The Associated Press and the LA Times. 

The Tribune said between April 20, when the Smart case moved to Salinas, and July 5, the last day the Tribune was inside the Salinas courthouse, only about 12% of court filings not involving media access questions are public. The Tribune reported the filings that have been made public involve media requests and administrative procedures, such as judge selection and trial dates. They argued the lack of access to records is inconsistent with other murder trials and with U.S. and California law. 

“Openness in and press coverage of criminal court records and proceedings empowers the public to debate, evaluate, and politically supervise the work of law enforcement and the judicial branch in an informed manner,” Aaron Field, counsel for the coalition, wrote in the motion. 

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