Nearly 25 years after Cal Poly freshman Kristin Smart vanished following a frat party, a California man who’s been named as a primary suspect in her disappearance has been arrested and charged with her murder.
Paul Flores, who walked Smart home from the party and was the last person to see her alive in 1996, was taken into custody on Tuesday in San Pedro, California, and booked into the San Luis Obispo County Jail.
Flores’ 80-year-old father, Ruben Flores, has also been arrested and charged with accessory after the fact. Authorities served another search warrant at Ruben’s Arroyo Grande home on Tuesday.
“Throughout our investigation, Paul Flores has remained a person of significant interest,” San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said in a Tuesday press conference announcing the charges against Flores and his father.
Parkinson declined to give details on the new information that led to Tuesday’s arrest but said authorities obtained new evidence after monitoring Flores’ phone and text messages. The arrests come just one month after the sheriff’s office identified Flores as “the prime suspect” in Smart’s case, which has attracted national attention for decades.
Parkinson confirmed that authorities have not yet recovered Smart’s body—but the search will continue.
“This is not over and we have committed to them that we are not going to stop until Kristin is recovered... We are committed to that,” Parkinson said, adding that he has spoken to the Smart family, who was “feeling a bit of relief.” “We will find Kristin.”
The sheriff added that throughout the investigation, authorities have executed 41 search warrants at 16 locations and compiled 500 police reports. He said physical evidence was found linking Flores to the disappearance in at least two homes.
Flores, 44, has been denied bail, but his father could get out of jail on a $250,000 bond. Both are expected to appear in court Thursday.
The Smart family always believed they’d identified Flores, a fellow college student, as Kristin’s alleged killer. The Smarts even filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Flores, alleging he “preyed upon” and “murdered” Kristin, who was in an “intoxicated state” when he found her. The civil case, however, remained stalled because of the ongoing criminal probe.
“The news today of arrests in connection with the case brings sadness but also a measure of relief and hope for resolution,” Cal Poly President Jeff Armstrong said during the press conference.
Smart was 19 and a freshman at California Polytechnic State University’s San Luis Obispo campus when she vanished on Memorial Day weekend in 1996. The student had attended an off-campus frat party and was later found passed out drunk on a neighbor’s lawn at 2:30 a.m., according to an FBI agent’s private investigation and 2000 report.
While a few students stepped in to wake Kristin up, it was Flores who walked her home—and who became the last person to see her alive. As The Daily Beast reported, Flores, who also attended Cal Poly, later told cops Kristin was “walking real slow” and that he hugged her waist to keep her warm on the chilly stroll back to her Muir Hall dorm. Flores told authorities that he returned to his room in Santa Lucia Hall after dropping her off.
Yet, one month later, cadaver dogs led police to Flores’ mattress, which was on the left side of his dorm room. The dogs alerted again in the same area, even after the mattress was collected as evidence and removed from the building.
Derrick Tse, Flores’ roommate at the time, told police Flores admitted to killing Kristin. “Yes, I killed her and brought her to my mom’s and she is still there,” Flores allegedly said, according to Tse’s statement to cops.
Flores had cuts on his knees and a black eye when prosecutors interviewed him. He claimed he got the shiner during a basketball game on the day after Kristin vanished, but his friends told authorities that he already had the injury when he showed up to play. In another interview, Flores admitted he lied about the black eye, saying he’d actually bumped his eye on his truck’s steering wheel while doing repairs.
During depositions in the Smart family’s lawsuit, Flores pleaded the fifth on all questions aside from his name and birth date.
Meanwhile, sheriff’s deputies searched the Arroyo Grande homes of Flores’ parents, who were separated, but apparently came up empty-handed.
A neighbor of Flores’ mother said he tipped police off to some strange activity he witnessed around the time Kristin disappeared. The neighbor said he watched Flores and another young man dig in Susan Flores’ backyard and pour concrete late at night. He claimed the men also hauled a rolled-up rug that appeared to carry something heavy.
“I’ve never seen these guys before,” the tipster told The Daily Beast. “And they’re digging in this woman’s yard at this time of the day, and the kind of digging they were doing plus the concrete just didn’t make sense.”
A second neighbor, Lauri Quinn, said she witnessed “ongoing construction work” in Susan Flores’ yard that included “newly constructed concrete planters cut into the existing cement in the backyard,” the FBI agent’s 2000 report stated.
Susan’s backyard was also of interest to a world-famous cadaver dog named Buster, who discovered the remains of some 200 people, including World War II soldiers and others missing for decades, before he died in 2016.
In the summer of 2014, Buster alerted twice at Susan’s fenceline after moving through the backyard of her neighbor. “Trust me, there is human decomp (decomposition) in that soil,” Buster’s handler, retired police officer Paul Dostie, told The California Register, a now-defunct independent newspaper.
In November 2016, The Daily Beast reported on the accusations of four women who say Paul Flores sexually assaulted them. One of the accusers alleges Flores and a friend drugged and raped her in 1994 when she was a sophomore in high school. A second woman, who attended Cal Poly, said Flores groped her at a Halloween dance party in 1995, and that he tried to rape her in the bathroom at her friend’s birthday party that same year.
In response to The Daily Beast’s exclusive report, Kristin’s parents released a statement thanking the women for coming forward.
“These new allegations against Paul Flores are very troubling and deserve to be thoroughly investigated,” they said. “We are grateful to these brave women for having the courage to talk about their experiences and we ask anyone who may have information they think could be helpful to contact the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office.
“Any tidbit of information or recollection could make the difference in the recovery of our beloved Kristin.”
In January 2020, Kristin’s mother told The Record, a daily newspaper in Stockton, that a retired FBI agent warned her to prepare for a big break in the 23-year cold case. “Be ready. This is really going to be something you don’t expect. We want to give you the support you need,” the agent reportedly told Denise Smart, Kristin’s mom. But the retired lawman didn’t say exactly when this bombshell would drop.
Soon after Denise’s claim made national headlines, the Smart family backtracked, saying there was no impending announcement: “When the Sheriff’s Department completes the investigation, they will notify all of us when there is news to announce. Thank you for your understanding and our shared interest in the ongoing investigation.”
The retired agent’s notice brought hope to Kristin’s parents, who over the years have dealt with a rollercoaster of emotions and what—until now—amounted to scant developments in the investigation, including a 2016 excavation by the sheriff’s department at the university. It’s unclear what was unearthed from that dig.