SALINAS, Calif. (KRON) — Kristin Smart’s accused killer was found guilty of first-degree murder by a jury on Tuesday afternoon. Jurors convicted Paul Flores of murdering the 19-year-old college student in 1996, and acquitted Flores’ father, Ruben Flores.

Ruben Flores was accused of helping cover up the murder by burying Smart’s body in the backyard of his Arroyo Grande, Calif., home. Jurors found Ruben Flores not guilty of accessory after the fact to murder.

Smart was a college freshman when she vanished on May 25, 1996 from California Polytechnic State University’s campus in San Luis Obispo. A fellow Cal Poly student, Paul Flores, murdered Smart as he attempted to rape her in his dorm room, prosecutors said.

“Without Kristin, there is no joy or happiness,” her father, Stan, said following the verdicts. “To our Kristin, almost three decades ago, our lives were irreparably changed on the night you disappeared. Know that your spirit lives on in each and every one of us. Not a single day goes by that you are not missed, remembered, loved, and celebrated.”

Kristin Smart
Kristin Smart

The Smart family wrote, “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.”

Paul Flores, 45, now faces 25 years to life in prison. He will remain in an isolated cell at the Monterey County jail until he is sentenced by Judge Jennifer O’Keefe on December 9. “He’s in maximum security because of the nature of the charges,” Monterey County Undersheriff John Thornburg told KRON4.

Ruben Flores was allowed to leave the courthouse Tuesday as a free man.

Smart’s body has never been found. It took law enforcement and prosecutors 25 years of investigating, as well as a popular true crime podcast, to find enough evidence against Paul Flores to charge him with murder.

“Without Kristin, there is no joy or happiness,” her father, Stan, said following the verdicts. (Image courtesy SLOCDAO)

The trials, which began on July 18, were held in Monterey County because a judge ruled that finding unbiased jurors in San Luis Obispo County was too difficult. Smart’s 1996 disappearance set off county-wide search efforts.

“While the entire community banded together to search for Kristin desperately, Paul and Ruben did not. Ruben tore down missing posters of Kristin showing her smiling beautiful face, called her a ‘dirty slut,’ all while her corpse was decomposing under his deck,” Deputy District Attorney Christopher Peuvrelle told the jury in opening statements.

An empty gravesite with tiny traces of blood was found in Ruben Flores’ backyard in April of 2021, according to a forensic archeologist’s testimony. Ground-penetrating radar indicated that someone dug up the body, and moved it, shortly before a search warrant was executed on the property, according to investigators.

“We don’t have a full intact body in this case, but we have her blood. A couple grains of bloody sand … that’s all the Smart family has left of their daughter,” Peuvrelle said.

Following the verdicts, San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow said, “Today, justice delayed is not justice denied. Mr. Flores was an incredibly dangerous man to be free in the community. We removed a predator from the streets.”

Paul Flores
Paul Flores listens in court on July 18, 2022. (Pool photo by Daniel Dreifuss / Monterey County Weekly)

Dow said, “The impact that Kristin’s disappearance and its investigation have had on the Smart family and our community, spanning a quarter century, is profound. We thank them for the tremendous trust and patience they have placed in the investigation and prosecution of this terrible crime. This verdict provides some sense of justice for Kristin, the Smarts, and our community.”

In the days after Smart vanished, Cal Poly campus police zeroed-in on Paul Flores because he was the last person seen with Smart alive. Her close friend, Steve Fleming, told police that Paul Flores’ nickname around campus was “Chester the Molester” because of his creepy and overly-aggressive behavior toward female students. 

San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Office investigators search the backyard of the home of Ruben Flores on March 16, 2021, in Arroyo Grande, Calif. (AP Photo /Daniel Dreifuss)

Smart’s friends testified that she was “too nice” to tell Paul Flores to leave her alone. “What we would see as kindness, he would see as a d**k tease. In his predatory, vile, rapist mind, that’s what he saw her as,” Peuvrelle said.

Prosecutors said Smart was “hunted” for months by Paul Flores until he saw his chance: Smart was “incapacitated” from something she drank at a party and passed out on the party house’s lawn. Students who attended the party testified that Paul Flores promised to make sure she made it back to her dorm safely.

Cheryl Anderson, a student who walked with Smart and Flores from the party back to campus, testified that she saw Paul Flores leading Smart toward his dorm, Santa Lucia Hall, not Smart’s dorm, Muir Hall. Anderson testified that she was “creeped out” by Paul Flores, but, “I didn’t think anything horrible was going to happen,” to Smart.

‘Your Own Backyard’

After the Smart disappearance case went cold, journalist Chris Lambert launched a popular true crime podcast, Your Own Backyard, that renewed attention into the mystery of what happened. Lambert traced Paul Flores’ life in the years leading up to his arrest, and found evidence that he allegedly drugged and raped more victims. For the trial, two women testified about being raped by Paul Flores after meeting him at bars in Los Angeles County.

Chris Lambert started a podcast to document the disappearance of Kristin Smart and find more witnesses. (AP Photo /Nic Coury/ File)

At a press conference held by the district attorney, sheriff, and Smart’s family on Tuesday afternoon, Peuvrelle said, “We want to commend the bravery of the Jane Does who testified. They spoke for Kristin. They are heroes and role models for all of us. To tell … a room full of strangers … about the worst day of your life, that’s indescribable bravery.” 

Smart’s father thanked Lambert for giving a voice to Smart’s life and story “during our darkest moments.”

Dow said, “Chris Lambert devoted countless hours to keep Kristin’s memory alive. His podcast helped to identify new witnesses that were critical in the prosecution of this case.”

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said, “Chis put (Smart) in a story that people were wanting to listen to. It absolutely produced witnesses that we needed. Chris produced pieces to the puzzle that helped tell us what happened. Not everyone is comfortable with talking to law enforcement, but they felt comfortable talking to Chris.”

Parkinson vowed to continue searching for Smart’s body.

Ruben Flores found not guilty

Peuvrelle said he was “extremely disappointed” by Ruben Flores’ acquittal, and he has no doubt that Ruben Flores was guilty of being an accessory to the murder.

Ruben Flores spokes to reporters outside the courthouse after the verdicts were announced. According to San Luis Obispo Tribune reporter Chloe Jones, Ruben Flores said, “All that stuff they say is evidence, you look through it, and there is no evidence against anybody, me or Paul. Too much made up stuff, that’s all I can say. It’s too bad that sometimes the system works on feelings instead of facts. But I am relieved about myself, of course.”

Ruben Flores, left, talks to his attorney Harold Mesick. (David Middlecamp /The Tribune / Pool / File)

For closing arguments, Paul and Ruben Flores’ defense attorneys said prosecutors never proved that Smart was murdered. “There is no evidence of a murder. Conspiracy theories are fun. But you are here as jurors. This is a sad case, there’s no question about it. It would be nice to say she was angelic, but the reality is she was engaged in risky behavior,” defense attorney Robert Sanger said. “It’s not entirely unlikely that Kristin Smart is still alive somewhere,” defense attorney Harold Mesick said.

Jurors did not believe the defense team’s story, and returned with a guilty verdict for murder.

Kristin Smart was murdered at Cal Poly when she was 19 years old. Her family members said they feel “no joy” without her.

Statement from the family of Kristin Smart

“Without Kristin, there is no joy or victory with this verdict, we all know it did not have to be this way. 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. After 26 years, with today’s split verdicts, we learned that our quest for justice for Kristin will continue. 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.” 

“This has been an agonizingly long journey with more downs than ups, but we feel fortunate to have relied on the professional talents and commitment of Deputy District Attorney Chris Peuvrelle, District Attorney Dan Dow, Beth Raub, our victim witness advocate, and paralegal Becky Cripe, and the stellar team at the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office. We would also like to acknowledge Sheriff Ian Parkinson, Detective Clint Cole, District Attorney Investigator JT Camp, and the San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Office for their tireless commitment to making Kristin a priority. The steadfast efforts of this team and so many others ultimately made this day possible.”

“Finally, we are also thankful for the selfless contributions of Chris Lambert. His ‘Your Own Backyard’ podcast brought not only new information but much needed light and attention in our darkest hours by sharing Kristin’s voice and story.”

“Most importantly, to our Kristin: 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. 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.”