Police arrested Paul Flores, the last person to see Kristin Smart alive when she disappeared from the Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, campus in 1996, and his father, Ruben Flores.
(CN) — Police have taken two men into custody after achieving a breakthrough in the case of Kristin Smart, a college freshman who disappeared in spring 1996 and is presumed murdered, her family’s spokesman said Tuesday.
Police arrested Paul Flores and charged him with one count of murder in connection to the disappearance of Smart, who vanished from the Cal Poly campus about 25 years ago.
Police also arrested Paul’s father Ruben Flores and charged him as an accessory to murder.
The arrests represent the most significant development in one of America’s most notorious missing person cases while starting the closure process for the Smart family, which has been unable to bury their missing daughter.
“My hope is that we have taken the first step toward justice for the Smart family,” said San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson. “I want peace for the community and justice for all of us, most especially for Kristin.”
Speaking for the family, Segale said there were “a lot of really emotional moments” upon learning the news.
“A lot of prayers, astonishment, excitement, happiness, and of course sadness,” Segale said. “Sadness, because this has gone on for 25 years. The Smart family had not been able to bury their daughter. There was no closure.”
Kristin Smart was last seen near her dormitory on the campus of California Polytechnic University on May 25, 1996. Cal Poly is located in San Luis Obispo, a laid-back and picturesque town on California’s Central Coast.
She vanished after leaving a fraternity party that evening. Paul Flores is the last person to see Smart alive, one of three Cal Poly students who helped Smart walk home to her dormitory after attending the off-campus party, officials said.
The other two students left Smart with Flores after he assured them he would escort her home safely.
Flores told police he walked Smart as far as his own dorm and left her to walk the remaining distance to the Muir Hall dorm. She has never been seen since and was declared dead in 2002.
Then a 19-year-old freshman, Smart did not have identification, money, credit cards or extra clothing at the time of her disappearance. Repeated interviews with Flores and the other two students who accompanied Smart home had yielded few insights.
In 2016, the FBI used cadaver dogs to excavate an entire hillside near the Cal Poly campus, following a lead that Smart was buried there. Officials have yet to comment on whether the items they found at three separate dig sites across the campus contributed to the breakthrough.
Law enforcement officials searched Paul Flores’s house in the Southern California city of San Pedro last year, but did not make an arrest.
Last month, police searched the house of Paul’s father Ruben Flores using cadaver dogs and radar. Paul Flores was detained at his house during the search but was set free after it was concluded.
Sheriff Parkinson declined to detail the evidence collected as part of the two searches but did say evidence was collected during the series of searches.
“We found physical evidence at least two homes,” Parkinson said during Tuesday’s press conference.
Parkinson also confirmed police did not recover Smart’s body during either search.
“We still have not found Kristin,” he said. “I think the Smart family is feeling relief today, but until we recover Kristin, this thing is not over.”
Parkinson said the case against Paul Flores does not hinge on recovering the body, noting that people are frequently convicted of murder even when bodies are not found
Police continue to search Paul Flores’s home in San Pedro and Ruben Flores’s home in Arroyo Grande.
Parkinson also thanked Christopher Lambert, a musician who recently produced an 8-part podcast investigating Smart’s disappearance that revived interest in the case.
“What Chris did with his podcast is he took a local story and made it national, even international,” Parkinson said. “And it did produce some information that I believe was valuable.”
Specifically, the sheriff’s office interviewed one of the participants in the podcast while others came forward with information or evidence as a result of the popularity of the podcast.
“Most of us were not a part of this agency when all this happened,” Parkinson said. “But the Cal Poly and Central Coast communities have watched this case closely and hoped for news. I want this to bring a measure of relief. It is not the end of the case, but it is a significant step.”