Freshman Kristin Smart disappeared without a trace after a Californian college party 26 years ago – and now the prime murder suspect has been found guilty after a crime podcast helped cops crack the case.
The podcast Your Own Backyard saw the host interview those close to the cold case, leading to a breakthrough with Paul Flores, now 45, charged with Smart’s murder.
His father Ruben Flores, 81, was charged with acting as an accessory after the fact.
More than two and a half decades after Kristin’s disappearance, the younger Flores was found guilty of the crime at Monterey County Superior Court in Salinas, California.
He was handed his verdict on October 18. Kristin Smart’s body has still never been found.
Smart, 19, was a ‘bright’ student at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. She attended a party one night in May 1996, and was never seen again.
Flores’ father, now 81, was alleged to have helped bury Kristin behind his home in Arroyo Grande, and later dug up the remains and moved them. But the jury found Ruben not guilty.
Now, partly thanks to the podcast and its host Chris Lambert, Smart’s family have finally received some measure of the closure they have been seeking after their daughter’s death.
Here, DailyMail.com examines the mystery that’s gripped the US for nearly three decades.
THE CASE OF KRISTIN SMART: The freshman was last seen after a party in May 1996. Investigators have been searching for her killer ever since. Paul Flores, who was also a 19-year-old freshman at the time of her death, was charged with her murder in 2021. He was found guilty in October 2022
Paul Flores, now 45, was found guilty of first-degree murder. His father, Ruben Flores, now 81, was charged with accessory after the fact, but he was found not guilty
Pictured: Kristin Smart’s room, where all her belongings were left in place after she went missing. A friend claimed he once saw Paul Flores bothering Smart in the room
Pictured: A sign asking for information on Smart. The Your Own Back Yard podcast’s coverage of her case reignited an investigation and helped bring charges against the Flores men. Paul Flores was found guilty of first-degree murder
The last time Kristin was seen: College party, May 1996
Kristin Smart, from Stockton, California, was in her freshmen year at college when she disappeared after a party on May 25, 1996.
On the night she was last seen, Smart and her friends from California Polytechnic State University grabbed a ride in a truck and arrived at an unofficial fraternity house near campus.
According to her college friend Margarita Campos, Smart was ‘not under the influence at all’ when she last saw her at around 10pm on the intersection of California and Foothill Boulevards.
Former student Ross Ketchum recalled speaking to 19-year-old Smart about surfing and school at the Memorial Day weekend party, held at 135 Crandall Way.
There were about 70 people at the gathering and everyone was ‘shoulder-to-shoulder,’ Ketchum said.
Tim Davis, a senior who helped host the party, told investigators that towards the end of the night he spotted Smart sprawled on the lawn, apparently passed out.
Davis was going to walk her home with another student, Cheryl Anderson.
Paul and Kristin were both freshmen at Cal Poly in 1996 when she vanished. He was staying in Santa Maria Hall and she was in Muir Hall, which are 0.2 miles apart – a four minute walk. Paul was the last person to see Kristin alive
Kristin Smart went missing May 1996 while at California Polytechnic State University. To this day, her body has not been found
But Paul Flores, then 19, volunteered to help after appearing ‘out of nowhere,’ Anderson recalled.
Anderson said Smart appeared ‘very intoxicated’ and her speech was slurred. Davis and Anderson walked with Flores and Smart, but parted ways before reaching their dorm buildings.
Flores was then the only person left helping Smart stagger back from the party at around 2am.
He was the last person to see her alive.
A missing-person report was filed with campus police on May 28. Searches were conducted on campus and in her Muir Hall dorm room, where they found her wallet and other belongings.
Smart was formally declared dead in 2002, and her body has never been found.
Recalling moments from 1996, Smart’s heartbroken mother Denise said she contacted police shortly after Kristin failed to call home on Sunday, May 26.
Kristin’s cheerful call home was a weekly ritual, she said.
Before she vanished on May 25, Kristin sent her parents an excited voicemail claiming to have good news. They never found out what it was.
Worried Denise had days earlier called the college president, but was redirected to a residential advisor who refused to give any information about Kristin on ‘privacy’ grounds.
Smart, 19, was a ‘bright’ student at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo when she attended a party one night in May 1996
Investigators tried to find the person behind her murder for the last 26 years. At long last, Kristin’s family have some closure
Flores’ father, now 81, was accused of helping bury the slain student behind his home in the nearby community of Arroyo Grande, and later digging up the remains and moved them. But he was found not guilty during his trial
Paul Flores, who murdered Kristin Smart, lived in this dorm room (nearest window in photo) in the Santa Lucia dormitory in 1996. Prosecutors presented evidence that four cadaver dogs stopped at Flores’ room and alerted to the scent of death near his bed
Crystal Teschendorf (pictured), Kristin Smart’s former roommate, said she and other students called police twice about Smart’s disappearance in May 1996
A sheriff at the local San Luis Obispo Police Department then told Denise he had no jurisdiction over the college campus.
Four days after her disappearance, police filed a missing persons report.
Smart’s former roommate Crystal Teschendorf claimed police didn’t take her seriously when she reported the 19-year-old missing twice before police finally filed a report.
Teschendorf said she and several other residents in the dorm contacted police two days after Smart failed to return to her room, and then, again, two days later when she didn’t show up for class.
‘We had talked about possible scenarios of why she would not have come back to the dorms,’ Teschendorf said of the concerned students. ‘We kind of thought it was unusual.’
Testifying about her last interaction with Smart, Teschendorf said her roommate appeared to be in a ‘good mood’ as they parted ways on Friday, May 24.
When Teschendorf returned to their room, she noticed that Smart’s keys and personal belongings that she normally took everywhere were still in the room, untouched, and her roommate was nowhere to be found.
Teschendorf said it was odd because although they weren’t particularly close, Smart would usually tell her if she was going to spend the night out of their dorm.
She said that she and the other girls in the dorm grew uneasy when none of them heard from Smart as they decided to make their first call to police on Sunday, May 26.
Mother Denise (center) is pictured shortly after the disappearance alongside Kristin’s father Stan (second from left), brother Matt (right) and sister Lindsey Smart Stewart (left)
A member of the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department searches a vehicle during an investigation outside of a home in connection with the cold case on February 5, 2020
The beginning of the investigation
Flores downplayed his interactions with Smart when he first spoke with police in the days after she was declared missing, saying she walked to her dorm under her own power.
San Luis Obispo County district attorney’s officials interviewed Flores in June 1996, but he later invoked his Fifth Amendment right before a grand jury, and then again during a civil disposition.
When Flores was first interviewed, he had a black eye. He told them he got it playing basketball with friends, who denied his account, according to court records.
He later changed his story to say he bumped his head while working on his car.
At a preliminary hearing, prosecutors presented evidence that four cadaver dogs stopped at Flores’ room and alerted to the scent of death near his bed.
Over the years, women called him ‘Chester the molester’ and ‘Psycho Paul,’ according to a court document.
In the months after Smart disappeared, her frustrated parents hired attorney James Murphy who filed a wrongful death lawsuit against both Ruben and Paul Flores.
During the deposition for the civil suit, he only spoke to confirm his name and invoke the Fifth Amendment 27 times. It was dropped when the father filed for bankruptcy.
Paul Flores (right), then a prime suspect in the disappearance of Kristin Smart in 1996, appearing in Superior Court in Torrance with his attorney Richard Hutton, charged with DUI
Paul Flores is shown in an unrelated arrest photo from 1996, when he was 19. He will now be sentenced for Smart’s murder
The revival of public interest: Your Own Backyard podcast
Despite over two decades without an answer, her heartbroken mother and father never gave up hope. Then in April 2021, Flores was charged for her murder.
And it was during the announcement of the arrest that San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson gave credit to the tireless work of podcast host Chris Lambert.
Citing the podcast, Your Own Backyard, Parkinson said: ‘In 2019, (we) interviewed several witnesses that had not been previously interviewed.
‘Some of that information came to light through the podcast … that was produced and eventually led to our interviewing that witness.’
Lambert was one of the few journalists and members of the public who have been privy to what is happening inside the court room. He was updating his followers on the closing statements via his Twitter account.
The man from Orcutt, California, started the podcast in 2019, and has since been credited with renewing worldwide interest in the unsolved case.
Lambert forensically interviewed Smart’s parents, best friend, college roommate, and others who knew Flores.
Born out of a desire to simply learn about what happened to the missing girl, Lambert embarked on the pet project without knowing the massive impact it would have for Smart’s family.
He started asking simple questions to people close to Kristin in 2019 – and soon garnered over 12 million downloads across the globe.
Chris Lambert in front of Muir Hall dormitory at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, California
Lambert, from Orcutt, California, forensically interviewed Smart’s parents, best friend, college roommate, and others who knew the prime suspect, Flores. Thanks to the witnesses that came forward, police were able to arrest Paul Flores
Since the trial started, Lambert said that the defense team have unsuccessfully requested to go through his emails, text messages, and gain access to his podcast notes.
Lambert previously told the Santa Maria Sun: ‘They want to go through my emails, my text messages and it’s just not going to happen. I’m not willing to turn that stuff over because there are so many anonymous sources I’m not willing to jeopardize.
‘They’re trying to poke holes in the witnesses’ credibility and they want to do it through me, and I think that’s improper.’
Speaking about his journey documenting aspects of the unsolved case, Lambert said: ‘This didn’t seem like it was ever going to happen. At the time I picked it up, it felt like the Kristin Smart case is that local case we all talk about, how come it never got solved?
‘It didn’t feel like this would happen.’
He said that during the trial, defense attorneys have said ‘a number of times’ that the podcast was ‘designed to convict Paul Flores.’
In response, Lambeth said afterwards: ‘I know that’s just smear, that’s their angle on it, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.
‘That was not my goal. It was just, does anyone know what happened? Does anyone know where Kristin is?
‘Getting into court was not a goal of mine and I didn’t see it happening. And honestly once it’s done, I think we’re all just going to be relieved that it’s over, regardless of the outcome.’
One of the few journalists and members of the public who was privy to what was happening inside the court room was Lambert. He was updating his followers via his Twitter account
Behind lattice work beneath the deck of his large house on a dead end street off Tally Ho Road, archaeologists working for police in March 2021 found a soil disturbance about the size of a casket and the presence of human blood, prosecutors said
Search warrants for issued for the Arroyo Grande home of Paul Flores’ father, Ruben Flores, 81
The breakthrough – Flores men are arrested
Smart’s case was never closed, but momentum was revived in the last two years.
Investigators conducted dozens of searches over two decades, but turned their attention in 2020 to Ruben Flores’ home about 12 miles south of Cal Poly.
It’s believed that the new-found impetus was driven by the fresh interviews police conducted, which first came to light via the Your Own Backyard podcast.
They arrested Paul Flores on suspicion of being a felon in possession of a firearm in February 2021 when his home was searched.
Then in March, detectives served a search warrant for his father’s home. They used ground-penetrating radar and a cadaver dog during the probe.
Behind lattice work beneath the deck of his large house on a dead end street off Tally Ho Road, archaeologists working for police in March found a soil disturbance about the size of a casket and the presence of human blood, prosecutors said.
Paul Flores had long been considered a suspect in the killing, but prosecutors only arrested him and his father in 2021 after the investigation was revived. He is pictured on April 13, 2021 being taken into custody. He now faces life in jail
Members of the Sheriff’s Office and FBI are seen putting up caution tape to keep people off the sidewalk outside the residence on February 5, 2020
The blood was too degraded to extract a DNA sample. While an expert said it was human blood, the test used did not rule out the possibility it was from a ferret or primate, though court records said no remains of either such animal were found there.
In April 2021, the Smart family lawyer James Murphy filed a lawsuit against Ruben Flores alleging that ‘under cover of darkness,’ the father and unnamed accomplices moved the body four days after investigators searched his house in 2020.
Flores was previously accused of moving Smart’s remains from the burial site ‘in the event of an additional search of the property.’
An additional search did indeed take place – a year later. Investigators only searched underneath the deck of his home in 2021.
During Rubens’ trial in October, Deputy DA Christopher Peuvrelle said during the closing statements: ‘Only one spot in that entire backyard happened to have a surface disturbance showing it had been dug down into.
‘Happened to be the perfect size for a human burial site,’ he said.
However, a jury did not find the evidence credible enough to convict Ruben Flores.
Paul Flores was arrested at his San Pedro, California home on April 13, 2021 and charged with murder.
His father was then taken into custody. Both men pleaded not guilty.
At the time of their arrest, the Smart family said in a statement: ‘It is impossible to put into words what this day means for our family.
‘We now put our faith in the justice system and move forward, comforted in the knowledge that Kristin has been held in the hearts of so many and that she has not been forgotten.’
Authorities also said that they linked two other attacks on women in Los Angeles to Paul Flores.
Prosecutors in July 2021 added that Paul Flores ‘has a specific fetish for forcing himself upon women especially when they are drugged or inebriated, which is exactly the state of Kristin Smart in the early morning of March 25, 1996.’
San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Office personnel searching in the backyard of the home of Ruben Flores in March 2021
An investigator uses ground penetrating radar to search the backyard of the home of Ruben Flores, in Arroyo Grande, California
The trial begins – 26 years after Kristin’s disappearance
Opening arguments for the 1996 mystery started on July 18, 2022.
Prosecutors believed that Flores killed Smart in his dorm room after trying to rape her. They claimed that he was then helped by his father to bury the girl’s body under the deck behind his home in Arroyo Grande, California.
They said that they later dug up her remains and moved them when law enforcements returned to search the house in 2020.
During the trial, San Luis Obispo County Deputy District Attorney Christopher Peuvrelle sensationally pointed at Ruben Flores and his ex-wife, Susan Flores, and said of Kristin: ‘She was under their deck.’
He told the court that there are no witnesses who can corroborate Flores’ story of what happened in his dorm room on May 25, 1996.
And he said that at the time, Paul Flores and his father did not join in the community hunt for the missing teenager.
Paul Flores looks on at the second day of his preliminary hearing Tuesday August 3, 2021. He murdered Smart in 1996
Judge Jennifer O’Keefe will sentence Paul Flores after being found guilty. The sentencing will occur on December 9
‘Paul Flores is guilty as sin. Justice delayed does not have to be justice denied. You now know the truth of what happened,’ he said, according to those in the court.
Peuvrelle said: ‘Now you know where she was all along. She was under their deck.
‘The community moved Heaven and Earth to try to find her. Paul and Ruben, they moved the dirt under their deck to hide her.’
Also heard during the trial was a recorded conversation between Paul Flores and his mother Susan Flores.
During the call, the mother tells her son he needed to tell her where they can ‘punch holes’ in the ‘Your Own Backyard’ podcast because ‘only you can.’
Robert Sanger, defending Paul Flores, said there was no evidence against his client, and insisted the case was based on rumor.
‘Conspiracy theories can be fun. We love to hear them,’ said Sanger.
‘We like to watch shows, and you think, “I bet I know what happened.” But you’re here as jurors. You took an oath that you would follow the rule of law.’
Sanger picked holes in the witness testimony, noting it had been 26 years since Smart’s death, and questioning their memories.
In his closing arguments, Sanger said the prosecution’s case was not to showcase evidence, but rather to evoke an emotional prejudice against Paul Flores by using phrases like ‘guilty as sin’ and quoting witness testimony that says Paul Flores called Smart a ‘d*** tease.’
The publicity of the case is ‘the elephant in the room,’ Sanger said, adding that there were people ‘inserting themselves’ into the case along with extensive news coverage locally and nationally.
‘A lot of this had an influence on testimony,’ Sanger said.
He also tried to undercut the prosecution’s idea of Smart as a young innocent, insisting she was wild.
‘It’d be nice to just preserve this idea that everything was fine and she was angelic, but the reality is she engaged in at-risk behavior and you have to interpret how that affects the events that may have transpired,’ he said.
‘You have a pretty straightforward job. You have to decide whether or not a murder was committed, beyond a reasonable doubt,’ Sanger told the jury.
‘Short answer – it was not.’
But the jury decided it was. They handed Paul Flores a guilty verdict.
San Luis Obispo County Deputy District Attorney Christopher Peuvrelle led the prosecution at both of the Flores men’s trials
Paul Flores is pictured in court during his murder trial. He denied killing Kristin Smart – but was found guilty
Sanger spoke about ‘uncharged acts’ witnesses that were presented, referring to the two women who came forward alleging Paul Flores raped or attempted to rape them.
‘He’s charged with murder, not rape or attempted rape,’ he said.
He continued: ‘That’s wrong, that’s bad, that’s a crime he can be convicted of, but that’s not your job. What you have to decide is whether Paul Flores committed murder.’
Sanger also told the jurors that they needed to question whether the expert witnesses who testified for the prosecution are actually experts. ‘It’s junk science coming into the courtroom,’ he argued.
Sanger said the case was straightforward: ‘There is no evidence of a murder, so that is really the end of it.’
He finished his closing arguments by telling jurors: ‘You must decide the case for yourself. It depends on all 12 of you to deliberate to show whether there’s proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The only proper verdict, in this case, is not guilty.’
During the prosecution’s rebuttal, Peuvrelle asked the jury to find Paul Flores guilty of first-degree murder and summarized the evidence that had been presented during the trial that started on July 18.
He said: ‘Sometimes we tell our kids monsters do not exist, but they do. I ask you to render a truthful verdict that Paul Flores is guilty of first-degree murder.’
Describing Paul Flores during the final statements, Rubens’ attorney Harold Mesick said: ‘He was an awkward freshman who liked to wear baseball caps. He liked to play pool and he liked to drink.
‘Paul Flores was innocent, and his actions were helpful. When Kristin Smart fell at the party, he helped her up. He was doing a good deed.’
That ‘good deed,’ it now transpires, was the murder of 19-year-old Kristin Smart.
Paul Flores was found guilty of first degree murder on October 18. He faces a minimum of 25 years in jail.
He will be sentenced on December 9, at 9am.
His father Ruben Flores was found not guilty by a separate jury.
Kristin Smart timeline: From California college student’s 1996 disappearance to 2022 murder trial
- Kristin Smart, 19, of Stockton, California vanished.
- The California Polytechnic State University freshman was last seen around 2 a.m. on May 25 when she walked back to her to her dorm room after an off-campus party in San Luis Obispo.
- Paul Flores, her classmate who walked her home from the party, was the last person she was seen with.
- Smart never returned to her dorm and was reported missing to the Cal Poly Police Department on May 28.
- Prosecutors would later say that Flores killed Smart while trying to rape her in his dorm room.
- Three cadaver dogs lead investigators to the dorm of 19-year-old Paul Flores during a search.
- The dogs, which are trained to pick up the smell of human remains, alerted to the corner of a mattress on Flores side of the room.
- Smart was declared legally dead. But her family vowed to get justice.
- Ian Parkinson became the San Luis Obispo County sheriff.
- He requested a complete review of all the evidence in relation to Kristin Smart’s missing person case.
- There are new leads in the investigation and official excavate a hillside on the Cal Poly campus and cadaver dogs are used to search for Smart’s remains.
- A San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s spokesman says investigators uncovered some ‘items of interest’
- New witnesses were interviewed which led detectives to securing a court order to monitor Paul Flores’ cellphone activity.
- A podcast launched by Chris Lambert, ‘Your Own Backyard,’ brought renewed attention to case.
- He was later praised by San Luis Obispo Sheriff Ian Parkinson for his help bringing attention to the case.
- Officials obtain four search warrants for Paul Flores.
- Two of the warrants were served in San Luis Obispo, another in Los Angeles County and the fourth one in the state of Washington.
- Investigators said the warrants were for very specific items.
- Evidence from previous search warrants led detectives to serve an additional warrant at Paul’s home.
- During the search, officials said they found evidence related to the murder of Smart.
- Search warrants for issued for the Arroyo Grande home of Paul Flores’ father, Ruben Flores, 80.
- Investigators used cadaver dogs and ground-penetrating radar to search the home.
- Both Paul Flores and his father Ruben Flores were arrested in connection to Smart’s murder.
- Paul Flores, who had been longtime person of interest in Smart’s disappearance case, was named the prime suspect in the case.
April 14, 2021
- San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow said that Smart was killed during an attempted rape by Paul Flores in his dorm room and his father helped hide her body.
April 19, 2021
- Paul Flores and Ruben Flores plead not guilty in connection with Smart’s disappearance.
July 18, 2022
- Opening statements begin.
- Paul and Ruben Flores are being tried separately, but at the same time, with two different juries.
October 3, 2022
- After nearly three months of testimony, delays, closing statements begin in Monterey County Superior Court in Salinas, California.
- Jurors heard closing statements in the case against Paul Flores.
- Prosecutor Chris Peuvrelle told jurors the ‘truth is, Kristin Smart is dead and the evidence is clear that she was killed by Paul Flores.’
- Defense attorney Robert Sanger argued that the case is straightforward: ‘There is no evidence of a murder, so that is really the end of it.’
October 4, 2022
- Closing statements conclude and jurors are dismissed for deliberations. They will decide whether or not Paul Flores is guilty of killing Kristin Smart.
October 5, 2022
- Closing statements in the case against Ruben Flores begin and end. The jury is out to deliberate on his fate.
October 18, 2022
- Both Paul and Ruben Flores’ verdicts are reached.
- Paul is found guilty of first-degree murder.
- Ruben is found not guilty of helping his son hide Smart’s body.