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After years of suspicion, Paul Flores is arrested in the disappearance of Kristin Smart

The LA Times logo The LA Times 4/13/2021 Matthew Ormseth, Richard Winton
a woman smiling for the camera: Kristin Smart disappeared 24 years ago. (The Record via Tribune News Service) © Provided by The LA Times Kristin Smart disappeared 24 years ago. (The Record via Tribune News Service)

Early one Saturday morning nearly 25 years ago, Kristin Smart left a college party and vanished.

Investigators focused their suspicions on Paul Flores, a classmate of Smart's at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and the last person seen with her. But despite multiple rounds of interrogations and searches using radar and cadaver dogs, Smart's body was never found. Without hard evidence, authorities couldn't tie Flores to Smart’s disappearance and presumed death.

That changed Tuesday when San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s detectives arrested Flores, 44, on suspicion of murder. Flores’ father, Ruben Ricardo Flores, 80, was also arrested and is accused of helping his son dispose of Smart's remains, Sheriff Ian Parkinson said.

The arrests were a startling breakthrough in a case that has maddened investigators and haunted Smart's family for decades. Parkinson suggested Tuesday that a combination of physical evidence seized in recent years and statements from previously uninterviewed witnesses culminated in a judge’s sign-off on arrest warrants for the son and father.

Flores, who was taken into custody at his home in San Pedro, and his family have steadfastly maintained his innocence. Last month, Flores' mother reiterated the claim, telling a television reporter , "We have no responsibility for her disappearance and what happened to that young woman.”

Smart was a 19-year-old freshman when she vanished on Memorial Day weekend of 1996. She had gone to an off-campus party and was making the roughly 10-minute walk back to her dormitory with two other students when, the students later told police, Flores appeared and promised to see her back to her room.

Smart was never seen again.

a man that is standing in the grass: Ground-penetrating radar is used March 15 in a backyard search at the Arroyo Grande home of Ruben Flores, the father of suspect Paul Flores. (Daniel Dreifuss / For The Times) © (Daniel Dreifuss / For The Times) Ground-penetrating radar is used March 15 in a backyard search at the Arroyo Grande home of Ruben Flores, the father of suspect Paul Flores. (Daniel Dreifuss / For The Times)

From the start, investigators zeroed in on Paul Flores. Like Smart, he was 19 and in his freshman year. Classmates described him as awkward and unpopular; five months before Smart disappeared, a female student called the police and reported that Flores, apparently drunk, had climbed onto her balcony and refused to leave.

In interviews, Flores told investigators he had walked Smart to her dormitory and then returned to his room. He explained a black eye first by saying he had been elbowed in a pickup basketball game, then admitted he had lied and said he’d hit himself while working on a truck at his father’s home.

In one videotaped interview, as investigators stressed that Smart had last been seen with him, Flores “pulled his arms into his T-shirt, scrunched over at the waist in his chair and lifted his feet off the floor, as if moving toward a fetal position,” The Times reported in 2006, citing people familiar with the tape.

At the end of the questioning, though, Flores said: “If you are so smart, then tell me where the body is.”

The investigators had no answer for him. Several attempts have been made to find Smart's remains. Federal agents once dug up a hillside near the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus. Sheriff’s detectives have scoured the Arroyo Grande homes of Flores’ estranged parents with dogs trained to sniff out human remains, and used radar to probe the ground beneath the houses.

a couple of people that are talking to each other: Paul Flores is shown at his home on Feb. 5, 2020, when his home and car were searched by sheriff's deputies. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times) © (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times) Paul Flores is shown at his home on Feb. 5, 2020, when his home and car were searched by sheriff's deputies. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Last month, after refusing to speak with reporters for years, Susan Flores told a local television station she was tired of the enduring “harassment” by detectives who had treated her son as a “scapegoat.” She spoke with the KSBY news station a day after investigators came to her home with another search warrant and carried off her beloved Volkswagen.

"They keep trying to find the answers with us and they keep failing because the answers are not here,” Susan Flores said. “It is very simple.”

After speaking with investigators in the weeks after Smart's disappearance, Paul Flores refused to discuss the case when called to testify before a grand jury and again in a deposition for a wrongful death suit brought by Smart's family. Both times Flores invoked his 5th Amendment rights against self-incrimination. He has consistently denied allegations raised in the Smart family's lawsuit that he was involved in her disappearance.

Robert Sanger, an attorney for Paul Flores, declined to comment Tuesday. Harold Mesick, a lawyer for Ruben Flores, said his client is “absolutely innocent."

Mesick said he had visited his client in jail Tuesday afternoon. “He’s 80 years old. He’s elderly. He’s infirm,” he said. “He’s seen his family harassed for 25 years, and now it’s led to his arrest. It’s shocking to me.”

Investigators have long pursued the theory that Paul Flores killed Smart, but that he alone could not have disposed of her remains.

Parkinson, the San Luis Obispo County sheriff, said detectives found evidence in 2016 confirming Flores was a suspect in Smart’s disappearance but refused to elaborate.

“Discussing specific items of evidence is just not appropriate at this point,” he said, adding that he wanted to respect Paul and Ruben Flores’ right to fair legal proceedings.

Then in 2019, detectives interviewed witnesses who came forward after the release of Your Own Backyard, a podcast that examined Smart’s disappearance. Parkinson didn’t identify the witnesses or explain what information they provided, but said they hadn’t previously spoken with investigators.

With the evidence recovered in 2016 and statements from new witnesses, investigators secured a judge’s permission to monitor Paul Flores’ phone calls and intercept his text messages, Parkinson said.

In February last year, detectives served search warrants on the homes of Flores, his father, mother and sister. They returned to Flores’ home two months later with another warrant. During that search, they found physical evidence “related to the murder of Kristin Smart,” the sheriff said, without elaborating.

Comparing Smart’s disappearance to “a puzzle,” Parkinson said it has been "a very slow process to find each of those little pieces."

The sheriff suggested the public’s understanding of the case, as chronicled in countless newspaper reports, television specials and now a podcast, represents only a fraction of it. Readers and viewers may have taken the suspicions dogging Flores through the years as a sign of his guilt. But as law enforcement authorities, “it’s not what you believe,” Parkinson said. “It’s what you can prove.”

Calling it a “bittersweet day,” Smart’s family said in a prepared statement, “The knowledge that a father and son, despite our desperate pleas for help, could have withheld this horrible secret for nearly 25 years, denying us the chance to lay our daughter to rest, is an unrelenting and unforgiving pain.”

They said they hoped the arrests of Paul and Ruben Flores would prove “the first step to bringing our daughter home.”

Investigators will continue searching for Smart’s remains, Parkinson said. He had spoken with her family twice Tuesday, he said. "They're feeling a bit of relief, but as you can imagine, until we return Kristin to them, it’s not over.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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