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Mother of Kristin Smart first on stand in murder trial

Kristin Smart's mother Denise told jurors she often wrote her daughter letters, but the last one was a "buckle up, buttercup" message because she feared Kristin was going down wrong paths.

SALINAS, Calif. (CN) — The mother of missing Cal Poly student Kristin Smart offered kickoff testimony in the trial of a father and son accused of murdering and hiding Smart's body in 1996, and told jurors her daughter had been having a rough time in her first year at university.

The prosecution must prove there is enough evidence of a murder — after 26 years of searches throughout San Luis Obispo County and the residences of Paul Flores and his father Ruben — to convict both men. Smart was last seen outside an off-campus party in San Luis Obispo.

The trials of Paul and Ruben Flores are taking place with separate juries before Monterey Superior Court Judge Jennifer O’Keefe in a Salinas courthouse, about 120 miles away from the county where Smart disappeared.

Monterey Superior Courthouse is pictured in Salinas, California on July 21, 2022. (Natalie Hanson/ Courthouse News)

Denise Smart, dressed in black and white with glasses atop her brown hair, became emotional at times under examination by San Luis Obispo County Deputy District Attorney Christoper Peuvrelle. She told the jury the last time she and her husband Stan Smart saw their daughter was Easter 1996, and that Kristin was not feeling at home as a freshman at Cal Poly.

She described Smart’s childhood, being “inseparable” from and the biggest cheerleader for her younger siblings Matt and Lindsey Smart. She said her daughter was taught to be financially frugal and worked as a lifeguard during high school and college. 

“She was both emotionally and financially dependent on her family,” Denise Smart said, noting she and her husband paid for Kristin's tuition and board. “It was never enough. Her checkbook was often overdrawn.” Kristin did not have a car or a driver’s license and often traveled by bicycle. 

Along with talking to her daughter by phone every Sunday, Smart often wrote her daughter letters. On May 5, 1996, Smart said she wrote Kristin what she called a “buckle up, buttercup” letter in which she told her daughter “to get back on track.” 

Although Kristin had ADD, Denise said she wanted her daughter to take more responsibility for things like lost schoolwork. She called the letter difficult to read because “I never would have thought it was my last letter to write to my daughter.”

The last time Denise Smart heard her daughter’s voice was in a voicemail received May 24, when Kristin excitedly said she had good news.

Smart said she and her husband knew something was wrong when called about her daughter’s disappearance, and described being brushed off in phone calls with Cal Poly staff like a residence adviser, the university president's secretary and campus police. She said she was told that San Luis Obispo police and the sheriff’s office had no jurisdiction on the campus, and the Los Angeles and Santa Maria FBI said the local police did not need help. She was not convinced that law enforcement were fully investigating what happened to her daughter.

“I felt like the life of my daughter was of no value to anyone except her family,” Smart sobbed. She said they spent the next 25 years searching for their child.

On cross-examination, Paul Flores’ attorney Robert Sanger continued poking at Kristin Smart’s character as he had in his opening statements Monday.

Denise Smart, mother of Kristin Smart, is first on the witness stand in Monterey Superior Court in Salinas, California on July 21, 2022. (Bill Roden /New Dawn Studios)

Sanger asked multiple times if Smart had issues with her family during high school and college. He questioned Denise Smart about her knowledge of her daughter’s whereabouts and if her daughter lied. 

He and attorney Harold Mesick also questioned Smart extensively about the letter she wrote to her daughter. Smart acknowledged she was concerned Kristin might be placed on academic probation and said she warned her daughter not to make choices with negative financial and personal outcomes. 

When Smart testified she didn't remember much from May 1996, Mesick said, "We're trying to get the truth out of you and it's like pulling teeth, but that's OK."

Smart said several times she could not remember all details from a month 26 years ago, and said of the letter: “This moment in time did not define who Kristin was, or the value of her life at all.”

Matt Smart, Kristin’s brother also took the stand. He described how tight-knit their family always was and became defensive over Sanger's multiple objections and questions on his statements.

The now 42-year-old remembered his sister as driven and creative with a dream for a future in architecture. "When she wanted something she got it done, always," he testified.

He added: "It's inescapable daily, the void that's left when an individual you literally traveled the world with is just gone, and you're left with the memories of the joy you had when you were together."

Testimony will continue Friday.

Earlier Thursday, after a two-day delay for unknown reasons, the court heard opening statements from Mesick, Ruben Flores' attorney. Ruben Flores faces charges of helping his son hide Smart’s body, which has never been found.

Mesick accused Peuvrelle of misleading jurors on key points during his opening, such as by saying Ruben Flores was unaccounted for on Memorial Day weekend in 1996 when Smart went missing and that his son had called him from Cal Poly. Mesick said Ruben was with his son and at work that weekend.

"He is taking the evidence that’s detrimental to his case and he’s flipping it around," Mesick said of Peuvrelle.

Mesick told jurors the prosecution’s case is “entirely built on circumstantial evidence” and cannot prove there was a body buried under the Flores home or that Ruben and his wife were in physical condition to hide a body two years ago. He said Ruben Flores has been harassed and even assaulted for two decades.

“We still don’t know what happened,” he told the jury. “There’s virtually zero physical evidence."

The trials are expected to last into October. 

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