After four days of deliberation — and more than 25 years of questions — a California jury found Paul Flores guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Kristin Smart. His father, Ruben Flores, was found not guilty of being an accessory to the crime.
The decision came after an emotional closing argument on Sept. 28 from San Luis Obispo County Deputy District Attorney Chris Peuvrelle who told the jury: “It’s been 1,370 Sundays since [Kristin’s parents] Stan and Denise Smart waited for that phone call — the phone call that would never come.” He then pointed to Flores and his father and stated, “But you know where she was all along. She was under their deck. … The community really moved heaven and earth to find her, but Ruben and Paul Flores? They moved dirt under their deck to try to hide her.”
Previously released documents detailed a March 15th, 2021 search by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office of Ruben Flores’ Arroyo Grande property that included ground-penetrating radar. That technology uncovered a soil disturbance under the deck as well as four soil samples that tested positive for human blood; an April evacuation also tested positive for blood. Authorities also uncovered fibers consistent with the color clothing Smart was last seen wearing. No remains have been found.
Meanwhile, defense attorney Robert Sanger stated in his closing argument: “This case was not prosecuted all these years because there was no evidence. And there’s still no evidence.”
Peuvrelle did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment. Sanger declined to comment.
“Without Kristin, there is no joy or victory with this verdict, we all know it did not have to be this way,” Smart’s family said in a statement to E! News. “We will never be able to hear Kristin’s engaging laughter or revel in her embrace. Her hopes and dreams will never be realized; no form of justice can bring these back.”
The family continued, “We appreciate and we are beyond grateful for the diligence of both juries and our faith in the justice system has been renewed by knowing the man who took Kristin’s life will no longer be free to abuse another family or victim… We will never be able to personally thank everyone, but please know our gratitude and love goes out to each of you who have been with us on this long, overwhelming, and emotional journey.”
Smart, a 19-year-old student at California Polytechnic State University went missing in May 1996 after attending a party on campus; Flores was the last person to see her the night of her disappearance and was long the only person of interest, although he didn’t become a suspect for decades. He was arrested in 2021 on one count of murder in connection to the case.
Smart’s case has haunted her community for decades and was recently thrust back into the public eye with the 2019 launch of the popular true-crime podcast, Your Own Backyard, hosted by musician Chris Lambert. “True crime podcasting is not something that particularly captivated me,” Lambert told Rolling Stone last year. “But it was a local story and the thing that stood out to me is that nobody was talking about it anymore. I didn’t understand why. How are we not all talking about this every day until she’s found?” Lambert has been covering the trial from the courtroom every day via his social media.
After her disappearance, It took a week for authorities to begin searching for Smart; campus police refused to take a missing person’s report from a dorm mate, and it took a student calling both the police and Smart’s parents for action to be taken. Flores was finally interviewed by the Cal Poly police investigators at the end of May 1996, and they didn’t search his room until June 10, according to the San Luis Obispo Tribune. By then, school had ended for the semester and his room had been cleaned out. His room was searched again during the weekend of June 29, and a team of cadaver dogs signaled the smell of human decay. When questioned by police, Flores denied any wrongdoing when it came to Smart, saying: “I walked with her to where the driveway was and I went off to my dorm.” That was the last time he spoke on the record.
Flores and his parents have kept quiet about the case for decades, maintaining his innocence. Flores pleaded the Fifth when the DA’s office subpoenaed him to testify before a grand jury in 1996 and again in 1997. Smart was declared dead in 2002.
After Paul and Ruben’s arrests, Sheriff Ian Parkinson stated that Lambert’s podcast helped move the investigation forward. “What Chris did was take a local story and turn it into an international story. … It did produce some information that I believe was valuable,” he said. Denise Smart, Kristin’s mother, has also praised the show. “We feel like the stars aligned when the podcast aired,” she told Rolling Stone. “It encouraged the previously reluctant to come forward.… This obviously gave law enforcement new leads to follow and connect with what they already were holding close.”
The Smart family’s statement Tuesday included a message to their daughter: “Almost three decades ago, our lives were irreparably changed on the night you disappeared. We hope this verdict helps deliver not just answers, but also a peace and sense of closure that have eluded us for 26 years,” the message read. “Know that your spirit lives on in each and every one of us, every day. Not a single day goes by where you aren’t missed, remembered, loved, and celebrated.”
This story was updated Oct. 19 with the Smart family’s statement.