SALINAS, Calif. (KRON) — Twenty-six years ago, California Polytechnic State University student Kristin Smart went to an off-campus party. She never made it back to her dorm room. Her body was never found.
On Monday, the 19-year-old woman’s accused killer, Paul Flores, will finally go on trial so that a jury can decide his guilt or innocence. The prosecution and defense are slated to deliver opening statements starting at 8:30 a.m. in a Salinas courthouse.
Jurors selected from Monterey County will see and hear evidence compiled from a murder investigation that’s nearly three-decades in the making. The trial is expected to stretch over months.
Paul Flores: Smart’s accused killer
Flores, 45, was the prime suspect early on in the investigation. He was one of three Cal Poly students who walked with Smart from the party back toward her dormitory hall on the day she vanished, May 25, 1996. He was also the last person seen with her alive. But prosecutors did not believe they had enough hard evidence to prove his guilt until April of last year, shortly after sheriff’s deputies dug up his father’s yard and collected soil samples.
San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow announced he filed first-degree murder charges against Flores on April 14, 2021. “It is alleged he caused Kristin’s death while in the commission of or attempt to commit rape,” Dow wrote.
Ruben Flores, 81, was charged with accessory after the fact to the crime of murder, for allegedly helping his son hide Smart’s body.
Why the Kristin Smart trial was moved
The trial was moved from San Luis Obispo County to Monterey County because a judge ruled that pretrial publicity surrounding Smart’s disappearance made it impossible to find a fair and unbias jury in the same county where the murder took place.
Dow has remained tight-lipped about why his prosecutors feel confident enough in 2022 to convict Paul Flores in a “no body murder trial.”
Santa Clara County prosecutors were able to win a murder conviction against Antolin Garcia-Torres for kidnapping and murdering 15-year-old Sierra LaMar in 2012 as she walked to her school bus stop in Morgan Hill. LaMar’s body has also never been found.
What to expect in the trial
New facts and evidence about what happened to Smart will be revealed when prosecutors outline their case with opening statements on Monday, as well as throughout the trial as witnesses testify on the stand. Smart’s parents, Denise and Stan, will attend the trial.
Renewed public interest and new leads in the case were raised with help from podcaster Chris Lambert and his popular true-crime series, “Your Own Backyard.” There is a “strong suspicion that a human burial site existed underneath the deck of Ruben Flores’s house,” Lambert said.
Charges filed against the elder Flores state that he “did harbor, conceal, and aid (his son) with the intent that Paul Ruben Flores might avoid and escape from arrest, trial, conviction, and punishment.”
Why two juries were selected
During jury selection last month, more than 1,500 prospective jurors were screened before two juries were selected — one for Paul Flores, and one for his father. Monterey County Superior Court Judge Jennifer O’Keefe forbid the media from recording any audio or video of the trial.
Laptops were also banned until news reporters protested earlier this month that writing notes with pen and paper was needlessly slowing down their reporting. The podcaster, Chris Lambert, was slapped with a subpoena from Flores’ defense attorneys just days before testimony for the trial was set to begin. “Since I am currently subject to the gag order, I am waiting for confirmation before I report any further on the case,” Lambert wrote on Twitter Thursday.
Evidence that could be shown to the juries
In the days leading up to opening statements, Judge O’Keefe has made several rulings on which key pieces of evidence can be shown to the two juries.
On Wednesday, the judge ruled in favor of the prosecution’s motion to play a recorded phone conversation between Paul Flores and his mother, Susan Flores, from January 2020, according to the San Luis Obispo Tribune newspaper. Prosecutors argued that the accused killer indirectly admitted to the crime in the phone conversation.
Over the phone, Susan Flores told her son to “listen to the podcast. See where we can poke holes in it. Only you know that.”
Paul Flores’ defense attorney, Robert Sanger, unsuccessfully tried to convince the judge to throw the taped phone call out because the podcast is “provocative” and “factually inaccurate,” the Tribune reported.
Judge O’Keefe also heard arguments from prosecutors and the defense over whether a mugshot of Paul Flores with a black eye will be shown to the jury, the Tribune reported. The mugshot was taken in 1996 when Paul Flores was arrested for drunk driving, not long after Smart went missing.
In his podcast, Lambert highlighted the importance of the black eye, which was much darker on Paul Flores’ face the day after Smart vanished. When Cal Poly’s campus police asked him about how he got the injury, his story changed, according to the podcaster.
Lambert said, “He says he got a black eye playing basketball with his friends. But one of those friends told police Flores already had the black eye when he arrived (at the basketball court.) He told those friends he just woke up with the black eye. When authorities later confronted him with the two stories, Flores admitted lying and offered a new explanation. He actually hit his eye on his steering wheel in the middle of the night while changing his stereo. So now you’ve got three different stories about how he got that black eye.”
If convicted, Paul Flores faces 25 years to life in prison.