Jake Anderson is a true-crime journalist, author, editor, and filmmaker. Always in search mode.
Kristin Smart: From Cold Case to Murder Trial
The 1996 disappearance of Kristin Smart remained one of California’s most haunting cold cases for 25 years. Then, in 2021, law enforcement officials finally arrested and charged a man long-suspected of killing the 19-year-old in the sleepy college town of San Luis Obispo. But despite decades of search efforts, Kristin’s body is still missing.
The ongoing saga of the Kristin Smart case pushes the legal burden of no-body prosecutions to its limits, and tests the endurance of two families ensnared in darkness and heartbreak.
Friends and family say Kristin Smart was happy, energetic, and always smiling—a “dreamer.” The oldest of three siblings, Kristin was a "mama bear" who was devoted to her family.
In 1996, Kristin was wrapping up her first year at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. On Memorial Day weekend, she separated from a group of her friends to attend a party. When she left, early in the morning on May 25, Kristin was intoxicated and passed out on a lawn.
Two students, Cheryl Anderson and Paul Flores, offered to walk her back to her dorm. But Kristin never returned to her room that day.
Concerned, Kristin’s roommate, Crystal Calvin, called the University police, but they told her they couldn’t file a missing person’s report for every student who went away for Memorial Day weekend. This critical lapse, compounded by jurisdictional confusion, allowed several days to pass before Kristin was declared missing.
Once the San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s department and other agencies launched an official investigation, over 200 volunteers, some arriving in busloads, joined the search. But despite the use of helicopters, K9 teams, and ground-penetrating radar, Kristin remained missing.
From the earliest days of the investigation, detectives targeted Paul Flores as the prime suspect. Paul, who walked Kristin home the night she went missing, was also the last person to see her alive.
Paul maintained that he saw Kristin return to her dormitory. There was no forensic evidence to suggest otherwise.
For over a decade, no substantial leads or updates arose in the case, but the Smart family never gave up on finding Kristin. Stan and Denise Smart hired private investigators, organized searches, and funded highway billboards with case information.
A Break in the Case?
Though criticized for its early handling of the case, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department didn’t give up either. In 2016, they announced new leads in the cold case and launched an “excavation project.” A 25-member FBI evidence response team, accompanied by three scent-detection dogs, displaced and searched 20,000 cubic feet of dirt underneath Cal Poly’s iconic concrete “P,” where they reportedly found “items of interest.”
For the first time in two decades, there was hope for justice. But another four years passed with little indication of progress.
Warrants, Arrests, and Lawsuits
Then, the dam finally broke. On February 4, 2020, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's deputies executed a sealed warrant to search the home of Paul Flores, who was detained, questioned, and released. Subsequent warrants allowed police to search the homes of Paul’s father, Ruben Flores, and mother, Susan Flores.
A year later, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested Paul on suspicion of being a felon in possession of a firearm, eventually charging him with the murder of Kristin Smart.
Before the criminal trial began, the Smart family filed a civil lawsuit against Ruben Flores, 80, later amending it to include Susan Flores and her boyfriend Mike McConville. The lawsuit contended that after the 2020 searches, the three of them conspired to relocate Kristin’s remains, which, according to court documents, had been buried in Ruben’s backyard.
After waiting a quarter of a century, the Smart family would finally see Kristin’s alleged killer stand trial. But could the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office secure a murder conviction without finding the victim’s body?
The Double-Trial of a No-Body Homicide
In early summer 2022, the District Attorney of the County of San Luis Obispo proceeded with two separate but simultaneous trials against Paul Flores, who is charged with murder, and Ruben Flores, who is charged as an accessory.
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Making their cases in front of two partitioned juries, prosecutors intend to prove that on the night Paul claims he walked Kristin home from the party, he took her to his dorm room and killed her.
His father, they believe, helped Paul bury her body under the deck in the back yard of his home.
Because Kristin’s body was never recovered—due to Ruben allegedly relocating the remains from his property—the prosecution’s case relied heavily on K9-detection, soil analysis, ground-penetrating radar, and witness interviews. The information disclosed has revealed new details about the search and investigation.
According to police records, four days after Kristin went missing, Paul Flores showed up to his first interview with a black eye and several scrapes and bruises, which he attributed to playing basketball with friends. His friends, however, claimed Paul already had the injuries when he arrived.
He also changed his account of what happened after leaving Kristin at her dorm. Paul told police that he went directly to bed, though witnesses recounted him taking a shower at 5 a.m. When investigators leaned in on this discrepancy, Paul tried to amend his story, grew frustrated and said, “If you are so smart, then tell me where the body is.”
He then reportedly began pulling his arms into his shirt and curling up into a seated fetal position.
Later, when facing a grand jury during the civil deposition, he invoked his 5th Amendment privilege.
The jury may not hear some of the more potentially damaging revelations against Paul. SLO County Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher Peuvrelle disclosed that during the search of Paul’s house, deputies found homemade tapes that showed Paul raping unconscious women, as well as two bottles of date rape drugs.
Judge van Rooyen, however, ruled that the prosecution couldn’t add rape charges from other uncharged cases because they weren’t able to establish that rape had taken place in Kristin’s death.
Though Kristin Smart was declared dead in 2004, investigators never found her body, and many legal analysts say this is the biggest problem for the District Attorney's Office to overcome. So-called “no-body” murder cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute.
Former D.C. prosecutor Tad DiBiase, author of the book No-Body Homicide Cases: A Practical Guide to Investigating, Prosecuting, and Winning Cases When the Victim is Missing, says the primary hurdle in such cases is that the DA doesn’t have access to a traditionally key witness, the medical examiner, whose testimony corroborates important facts and details about the victim’s death.
The defense can argue that without a body, identified remains, or at least traces of forensic DNA, you can’t be certain a person is even dead, much less that their client murdered her. More times than not, this is enough to produce reasonable doubt in the minds of a jury.
According to journalist Chris Lambert, whose podcast about Kristin's disappearance is credited with helping to break the case, the circumstantial evidence against Paul Flores is strong enough for a conviction.
Prosecutors have presented the strong circumstantial evidence along with the results of the K9 searches, soil analysis, and witness statements. They addressed the no-body obstacle by delivering a targeted message to the jury: Don’t reward the defendant for successfully concealing his victim’s body.
In August, DA Peuvrelle called professional dog handler Adella Morris to the stand to deliver combined expert-investigator testimony regarding the 1996 search of the campus dormitory. After explaining to jurors the process of K9 scent detection and the scientific value of a “blind procedure,” Morris recounted how her main dog, Cholla, zeroed in on Flores’ dorm room and his side of the room specifically. Later, her second dog did the same.
Defense lawyers challenged the evidentiary value of this by establishing that the search did not prove Kristin had been inside Paul’s room.
Legal analysts say the verdict could come down to which side tells the more compelling, believable story.
One of the most heated moments of the trial came when Smart’s father, Stan, testified.
Kristin Smart Scholarship
Stan and Denise Smart developed a non-profit organization that awards an annual scholarship to “empower other college-bound women to pursue their ambitions in Kristin's name.”
Paul Flores’ trial is scheduled to conclude in October. This article will be updated regularly until then.