SALINAS, Calif. (CN) — Two juries may decide this week if a California man killed a California Polytechnic University student 26 years ago, and if his father helped him hide her body — which officials have never located.
When the trial over Kristin Smart's disappearance began in July in Monterey County, more than 100 miles from San Luis Obispo, prosecutors said they will prove without a body or substantial physical evidence that Paul Flores, now 45, is responsible for killing Smart in 1996. They told a separate jury they will prove the man's father Ruben Flores, now 81, helped conceal Smart’s body for decades.
The investigation has never gone completely cold, given a complaint filed by San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow led to the arrest of the Floreses. Dow said he 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 Paul Flores using informants and wiretapping. Smart’s disappearance resulted in state legislation, including the Kristin Smart Campus Security Act which requires California’s publicly funded educational institutions to have security service agreements with local police departments to handle cases possibly involving violence against students.
Considerable media coverage of the case has driven interest. 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 played a significant part in the trial. And Denise Smart, the first witness on the stand in July, has said she was not convinced for a long time, amid the endless publicity around the case, that officials were properly investigating what happened to her daughter.
Before the jury gathered Monday in the packed Monterey County courthouse, San Luis Obispo County Deputy DA Christopher Peuvrelle reminded the Paul Flores jury of multiple pieces of evidence presented at trial, including video interviews between law enforcement officials and Paul Flores when he was 19.
He repeatedly pointed out Paul Flores in the courtroom, in a gray suit wearing a white mask, and his white-haired father Ruben in a black suit and white mask — and said they kept Smart buried under their deck for two decades as the community searched for the student.
“He was guilty as sin. They did not want to help find her,” he said.
Peuvrelle described Flores “hunting” Smart in college in 1996 and eyewitness accounts of Smart being incapacitated from the last people who saw her alive, with Flores repeatedly changing his story in interviews with officials about the details of his whereabouts during the weekend Smart disappeared. The prosecutor incorporated testimony from two women who claimed Flores drugged and raped them to show Flores intended to commit rape on the night he was seen with Smart. Peuvrelle called three witnesses to the stand to establish context by way of the “preponderance of evidence standard” to show evidence that Flores could be capable of rape — a screenshot of a video of a woman with a red ball gag in her mouth, from Paul Flores’ laptop.
The prosecution also relied on cadaver dog indications of human remains in Flores’ dorm room, and positive readings for blood from soil inside a human-sized hole discovered and dug up in Ruben Flores’ backyard. Peuvrelle told jurors how the two men removed Smart’s body from the Cal Poly dorms to the family home’s yard, describing how Ruben Flores carefully guarded his yard and kept many pieces of news coverage and memorabilia about Smart in his house.
Peuvrelle also said Smart would never have left all of her belongings and never spoken to her close-knit family again, and that no other explanation has been presented for her disappearance. He reminded the jury that a body is not necessary to find someone guilty of murder, and asked them to find Paul Flores guilty of first degree murder.
“Justice delayed does not have to be justice denied,” Peuvrelle said.
The defense has maintained there is not enough evidence to prove Paul Flores killed Smart, or even that she is dead. The attorneys asked Monterey County Superior Court Judge Jennifer O’Keefe last month to dismiss the case and declare a mistrial, citing “insufficient evidence” as reported by Cal Poly’s newspaper Mustang News. O’Keefe denied both motions.
The defense then unexpectedly rested its case early last week after a key witness was unable to attend. Paul and Ruben Flores both declined to testify.
Paul Flores’ defense attorney Robert Sanger spent more than two hours attacking Peuvrelle’s points and witnesses used, saying the prosecution's case is entirely built on circumstantial evidence and “conspiracy theories.” He said the prosecution did not have evidence of Flores had raped Smart, which is necessary to introduce unproven allegations from other women claiming Flores drugged and raped them.
"It's pretty unlikely that she just disappeared and didn't communicate with her family, which is sad. But there's still no evidence that there was a murder," Sanger said.
He also said the media coverage of the case heavily influenced public opinion — criticizing Lambert’s podcast at least three times — and attacked media sources for always being on hand to photograph key steps in the investigation, like the arrests of both men. He reminded the jury that public opinion led to years of “harassment” of the Flores family, calling it "25 years under the gun."
Sanger did not offer a version of what may have happened to Smart or what Paul Flores was doing on the weekend of her disappearance. He said without "real evidence" the jury cannot find Flores guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The law doesn’t allow us to convict people on these ethereal theories or speculation,” Sanger said.
Closing arguments in Ruben Flores' trial begin Tuesday. The two juries will begin deliberations this week.
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