SALINAS, Calif. (KRON) — Jurors for the Kristin Smart murder trial are deliberating the fates of two men accused of committing a horrific crime.
Paul Flores, 45, is charged with raping and murdering the 19-year-old Cal Poly freshman inside his dorm room in 1996 in San Luis Obispo.
His father, 81-year-old Ruben Flores, is accused of helping his son cover up the murder by burying Smart’s body in the backyard of his Arroyo Grande home, and hiding her remains there for two decades. Prosecutors said the Flores family later moved the body to a second hidden location just before the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office served a search warrant.
Jurors left the Monterey County courthouse Wednesday afternoon without reaching verdicts.
Paul Flores is “guilty as sin,” Deputy District Attorney Christopher Peuvrelle declared in closing arguments Monday. Winning guilty verdicts from the juries, however, is all-but-certain.
Prosecutors are facing two hurdles that Flores’ defense attorneys built up during their closing arguments: 1. Smart’s body has never been found. 2. Witnesses’ memories can fade over 26 years.
‘No body’ murder trial
With no body and no witnesses who saw Smart’s death, prosecutors had to rely on circumstantial evidence.
An empty gravesite with tiny traces of blood was found in Ruben Flores’ backyard hidden under his house’s deck in April of 2021, according to a forensic archeologist’s testimony. Investigators who used ground-penetrating radar said someone dug up the body and moved it shortly before a search warrant was executed on the property.
“They had to move Kristin’s body. The knew a search warrant was coming. It was a clandestine grave. It was the exact dimensions of her body,” Peuvrelle said.
“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.
Defense attorney Robert Sanger told jurors that the patch of dirt was not a gravesite and there’s no concrete evidence that Smart was even murdered.
“There is no evidence of a murder. Conspiracy theories are fun. But you are here as jurors. A defendant is presumed to be innocent. The People have to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Sanger said.
Defense attorney Harold Mesick said Smart may still be alive.
“It’s not entirely unlikely that Kristin Smart is still alive somewhere,” Mesick said. “There’s evidence to support a reasonable inference that Kristin Smart is just missing. She had a habit of disappearing. She lied frequently. She only had one real friend at Cal Poly. The other girls didn’t like her because she was boy-crazy.”
Paul Flores has been the prime suspect ever since Smart vanished. He was the last person seen with Smart alive on May 25, 1996. He lied to law enforcement during interrogations, including several lies about why he had a black eye. Flores attended the same off-campus party as Smart and he reassured two other students that he would make sure she made it back to her dorm room safely.
During the 3-month-long trial, prosecutors displayed photographs of Paul Flores’ first-floor dorm room to show how easily he could have lifted the body through his window or carried the body out of the building into a vehicle. There were few students on campus at the time because it was Memorial Day weekend. His roommate was in Oakland and Paul Flores knew he had four full days before he returned, prosecutors said.
Peuvrelle pointed at the father and son seated in the courtroom, and said, “We are not talking about the men who you see today. We are talking about 19-year-old Paul Flores, stocky (55-year-old) Ruben Flores. Two strong men in 1996. The two of them together could easily move a young woman of 145 pounds.”
The only phone calls Paul Flores made over the weekend of Smart’s disappearance were to his sister and father, according to phone records shown in court.
Cadaver dog handlers testified that their highly-trained dogs independently signaled alerts to the scent of human remains on a section of Flores’ mattress and never alerted to any other part of the dorm building. Sanger brushed off the cadaver dog searches as “junk science.”
Smart’s mother and father testified that their daughter was very close with her parents and younger siblings. She called home every weekend. But after May 25, 1996, she was never seen or heard from again.
Sanger reminded jurors that they must not let bias, sympathy, or passion influence their verdict. He added, “You can’t just say, boy, I don’t like Paul Flores, and I feel sorry for the Smart family, and therefore I’m going to convict.”
26-years between the disappearance and trial
“Justice delayed does not have to be justice denied. We know now the truth. The truth is out,” the prosecutor said.
Many of the witnesses who testified were either teenagers or young college students at the time of Smart’s disappearance. Several former Cal Poly students who attended the party testified that shortly after Smart drank something at the party’s tiki bar with Paul Flores, Smart suddenly fell down, became “incoherent,” and passed out on a lawn outside the house. One party-goer testified that Smart never smelled like alcohol, even when she kissed him.
One of Smart’s closest friends from Cal Poly, Steve Fleming, told police that he saw Paul Flores frequently lurking around their dorm even though he lived in a different building. Fleming testified that Flores was “creepy” when he would try to get Smart’s attention, but she was “too nice to tell him off.”
Defense attorney tried to cast doubt on Fleming’s memories and asked him several times if he was sure he was remembering the right student.
Peuvrelle said evidence from the trial demonstrated exactly what happened to Smart. She was “hunted” around campus for months by Flores until he saw his chance: The 19-year-old freshman had gone to the party alone without any friends to look out for her.
Peuvrelle held up a timeline of the hours just before Smart went missing. Smart was passed out on the lawn from midnight until 2 a.m. “(Paul Flores) stuck around because he saw she was alone and vulnerable. He saw his chance after months of hunting,” the prosecutor said.
Smart’s friend, Margarita Campos, testified that Smart was sober when she dropped her off at the party at 10:30 p.m. “All she had were the clothes on her back,” according to Campos’ testimony.
In addition to fading memories, defense attorneys attempted to cast doubt on the prosecution’s star witness, Jennifer Hudson, by attacking her character. Hudson testified that Paul Flores made a chilling murder confession to her while they were hanging out at a skateboard ramp.
Flores confessed about Smart, “I was at a party with this b**ch d**k tease. All she did was lead me on and I finally had enough of her sh*t so I took care of her,” according to Hudson’s testimony.
Sanger said his client never said the “vile” language and told the jury that Hudson is a former meth-using motorcycle gang member. “Her story was preposterous. There are all sorts of problems with Jennifer Hudson,” he said.
Paul and Ruben Flores were not arrested and charged until 2021.
“Mr. Flores was not arrested (in 1996) because there was not enough evidence to convict him of a crime. In 1996 there was no more or less evidence than you have right now,” Sanger said.
The trial was held in Salinas, 100 miles north of San Luis Obispo County, to ensure that the jurors were not tainted by pre-trial publicity. The father and son’s verdicts will be read at the same time after both juries complete their deliberations. “It is the intent to read the verdicts one after the other,” Monterey County Judge Jennifer O’Keefe said.