Examining California's Kristin Smart trial: The anatomy of a case with no body

Kristin Smart was a 19-year-old freshman when she disappeared from her California college campus in 1996. Her former classmate, Paul Flores, and his father, Ruben, are now standing trial in connection with her death

California court officials unsealed a trove of nearly 500 pages of documents in the ongoing case trial for Paul and Ruben Flores – the father and son accused in connection with the disappearance and presumed death of Kristin Smart.

The documents offer a glimpse into how the prosecution hopes to convince two juries that Paul Flores is guilty, without a reasonable doubt, of her murder, and his father, of acting as an accessory after the fact. It’s a hefty task, with a heavy burden, regardless of any extenuating circumstances. And in this case, one particular detail makes the job that much harder: Over 26 years since Smart disappeared, her remains have never been found. 

Smart was a 19-year-old freshman at California State Polytechnic University’s San Luis Obispo campus in 1996 when she was last seen, allegedly heavily intoxicated, with the Paul Flores after an off-campus party on Crandall Way. She was walked back from the party by three people – two people, a man and a woman, and then Flores. The others slowly peeled off after Flores allegedly insisted multiple times that he could get Smart home safely. 

She was never seen again. 

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Kristin Smart went missing on May 25, 1996, while attending California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and has not been heard from since.

Kristin Smart went missing on May 25, 1996, while attending California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and has not been heard from since. ( Axel Koester/Sygma via Getty Images)

Now, nearly every day for weeks – albeit with some breaks in between – court staff, attorneys, the defendants, their families, reporters and dozens of jurors have packed into a Salinas, California, courtroom to hear the decades-old case play out. Both Paul Flores, 45, and Ruben Flores, 81, are standing trial simultaneously on their respective charges, but with separate juries and defense teams to argue on their behalf.

Prosecutors have argued their belief that Flores killed Smart in his dorm room during an attempted rape. They say his father then helped his son bury Smart’s body under the deck behind his Arroyo Grande home – and then later dug up her remains when law enforcement returned decades later. 

They are expected to rely not only on witness interviews, but evidence gathered from ground-penetrating technology, K9-detection and soil analyses to further try to convince the juries.

Meanwhile, the defense attorneys for Paul and Ruben, respectively, are expected to argue that Flores barely knew Smart, and that the evidence is "based on speculation and not proof of facts." 

Paul Flores, on the left, was charged with murder. Ruben Flores, on the right, was charged with accessory after the fact. 

Paul Flores, on the left, was charged with murder. Ruben Flores, on the right, was charged with accessory after the fact.  (Courtesy | San Luis Obispo County Jail.)

They have tried to suggest Smart ran away to Hawaii, or that there were other suspects – including convicted murder Scott Peterson, who attended the university at the same time. But the judge barred any such mention of other suspects during trial. 

The defense did, however, receive a victory when a judge granted a request for the location of the case to be changed from San Luis Obispo County to Salinas, in Monterey County.

The proceedings are not televised or live-streamed, and only a handful of reporters per day are allowed inside on a first-come, first-serve basis.

According to accounts from reporters, day-after-day people who knew Smart, Paul Flores, or the circumstances of the case have taken the stand to testify about their experience or involvement. The trial is expected to continue for months. 

IN HIS OWN WORDS

Paul Flores stands during his murder trial in Monterey County Superior Court in Salinas, Calif., Monday, July 18, 2022. 

Paul Flores stands during his murder trial in Monterey County Superior Court in Salinas, Calif., Monday, July 18, 2022.  (Daniel Dreifuss/Monterey County Weekly via AP, Pool)

Investigators spoke with Paul Flores at least four times in the days and weeks that followed Smart’s disappearance – on May 28, 1996; May 30, 1996; May 31, 1996; and June 19, 1996. In each of these cases, according to authorities, he was not arrested, was not in custody and was not handcuffed. Each time, he allegedly willingly spoke to investigators. 

"Even if the girl wanted me, I wouldn’t…"

— Paul Flores, according to law enforcement records

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According to the unsealed documents, a police department investigator spoke with Flores in his dorm room on May 28, 1996. Flores was "nervous, his heart was pounding in his chest to such a degree that his shirt was moving," Kennedy reported. 

"Paul Flores told him that he walked Kristin Smart up the hill and then they had separated. He went back to his dorm. He gave her two hugs while in transit from the party," prosecutors wrote in court papers. "Kennedy noticed that Paul Flores had a black right eye." 

‘Chester the Molester’ and ‘Roxy’

Kristin Smart who disappeared in 1996 and Paul Flores, prime suspect in the disappearance, appearing in Superior Court in Torrance with his attorney in 2006.

Kristin Smart who disappeared in 1996 and Paul Flores, prime suspect in the disappearance, appearing in Superior Court in Torrance with his attorney in 2006. (AP/Getty Images)

Just two days later, Flores went to the Cal Poly Police Department office and spoke with a pair of investigators – a detective from San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Department and an officer from the Cal Poly Police Department, documents state. 

When asked to describe the events from the night of Smart’s disappearance, "going backwards," Flores allegedly told police, "She walked that way, I walked that way. That’s the last time I saw her." They had been walking with another girl from the party, he told the police, who eventually parted ways with the pair, a transcript states. 

"A couple times like on the way, maybe probably twice you know, I went like that, just gave her kinda like a hug, ‘Cause she was freezing,’" Flores allegedly said. Asked how much he had to drink, he said, "too much," and he ended up throwing up. 

He told police he did not remember what time he got sick or what time he got back to his dorm. He rambled about how much alcohol he had consumed, before investigators asked him again about the party and Smart, whom he said he knew as "Roxy." 

Paul Flores, prime suspect in the disappearance of Cap Poly San Luis Obispo Student Kristin Smart, a Cal Poly Student himself lived in this dorm room (nearest window in photo) in the Santa Lucia dormitory in 1996, when 19-year-old Kristin disappeared. (PHOTOGRAPHED FRIDAY MAY19, 2006.)

Paul Flores, prime suspect in the disappearance of Cap Poly San Luis Obispo Student Kristin Smart, a Cal Poly Student himself lived in this dorm room (nearest window in photo) in the Santa Lucia dormitory in 1996, when 19-year-old Kristin disappeared. (PHOTOGRAPHED FRIDAY MAY19, 2006.) (Photo by Don Kelsen/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

"I don’t know how we wound up walking together," he said, according to a transcript. When asked if he had any physical contact with her, he responded: "Nope. Never gave her a kiss, nothin’ or …"

He then pivoted to talking about the name "Roxy," court papers show. 

"It was the name that she was using at the party was Roxy. Be – because after – after you left I was thinking you know – Christine, Christine and then – and I was like – then I’m all – I’m all – I never even heard that name before. Then – Then I saw that the papers in the residence hall yesterday talking about Roxy," he said, according to the transcript. "That’s the name she was going by yesterday or the Friday." 

Kristin Smart went missing on May 25, 1996 while attending California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and has not been heard from since. 

Kristin Smart went missing on May 25, 1996 while attending California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and has not been heard from since.  (Axel Koester/Sygma via Getty Images)

"Like I talked to her one time at the party and she said ‘hi I’m Roxy … How do you like me’ or something like that, but she – she kept get – she kept walkin’ up like every single guy at the party sayin’ that," he allegedly told investigators.

Asked how he would describe Smart’s behavior, he said, "flirtatious I guess." 

"Even if the girl wanted me, I wouldn’t because – because you don’t know what you can ever get … diseases," Flores allegedly said. 

But the conversation then pivots to Flores himself, and any nicknames for him. 

Asked if people called him anything, Flores mentioned, "Paulino" and later, "Paulie Short." But investigators had another one in mind. 

"The phrase that we heard was, ‘Chester the Molester,’" one of the investigators said. 

Flores told investigators he had "never ever" heard that name.

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Flores went on to tell investigators he went to the bathroom when he got home to shower and could hear someone in the toilet stall – he said this while responding to a question about whether he encountered anyone who could potentially help him form an alibi if needed. 

He said it was "maybe" 5 a.m., "’Cause I had some bad taste in my mouth so I went and took a shower." 

He didn’t divulge much more in terms of the time frame surrounding the 5 a.m. shower. 

Flores later told investigators during the interview that he walked to the party by himself while he was on his way to his sister’s – he spotted the party and "wound up stopping by," the transcript says. He said he didn’t tell his sister he was coming, but he was planning on just stopping over unannounced. 

He said he had three beers at his dorm and brought another with him on the way. He initially said it was 10 p.m. when he left for his sister’s, but then said, "maybe it was like" 9. 

During the interview, Flores also revealed he went to the police station on May 27, 1996 to post bail for missing a court date related to a recent DUI arrest, the transcript states. He said he thought that was why police were coming to speak with him on that first day, the records state.  

Paul Flores' 1996 mugshot photo for charges unrelated to Kristin Smart case

Paul Flores' 1996 mugshot photo for charges unrelated to Kristin Smart case (court records)

And on May 31, 1996 – six days after Smart was last seen – Chief District Attorney Investigator Bill Hanley interviewed Flores, who met with Hanley at the Cal Poly Police Department, court documents state. 

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"Flores claimed that he knew Smart as Roxy and that she had come up to him and introduced herself but that was the extent of their conversation," prosecutors recounted in court papers. "Flores claimed that he did not find Roxy attractive and, ‘didn’t like those type of girls.’" 

The papers add: "Flores also claimed he did not contact, touch, or talk to her during the party."

Kristin Smart went missing on May 25, 1996 while attending California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and has not been heard from since.

Kristin Smart went missing on May 25, 1996 while attending California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and has not been heard from since. (Photo by Axel Koester/Sygma via Getty Images)

He also allegedly told the investigator that Smart "walked off on her own towards her dorm. But past witnesses told police Smart was so intoxicated that she was unable to stand or walk on her own. 

"When asked why, if Smart was so intoxicated, he did not walk her to her dorm[,] Flores replied that he did not think of it," court papers state.

Hanley also asked Flores why he "would take a shower if he had a bad taste in his mouth," court records state. He allegedly didn’t have a response.

Paul went on to tell investigators his father picked him up from campus and took him home that Sunday. 

The Black Eye

FILE - This Tuesday, April 13, 2021, file photo provided by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office shows suspect Paul Flores who was taken into custody in the San Pedro area of Los Angeles for the murder of Kristin Smart.

FILE - This Tuesday, April 13, 2021, file photo provided by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office shows suspect Paul Flores who was taken into custody in the San Pedro area of Los Angeles for the murder of Kristin Smart. (San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office via AP)

Flores was asked several times about an apparent black eye on the right side of his face, and gave a range of explanations as to how it happened. 

During an interview on May 30, 1996, Flores told police he got the black eye after he "got elbowed playing basketball." The sport, he said, also explained the scabs on his knees, according to transcripts. 

On May 31, 1996, When asked again about the black eye that had formed on Flores’ right side, "Flores claimed he got the black eye from playing basketball on Monday" – two days after Smart was last seen – with a friend, records state. 

But the friend who played basketball with Flores on that Monday also saw Flores the day before, on Sunday, and said Flores was already sporting the black eye then. Flores, he said, told him he "woke up with it."

And when they did play basketball on Monday, "Flores did not get hit in the face," the friend allegedly told investigators. 

Court records alleged that Flores also told investigators he got the black eye while "working on his car."

‘D--- Tease’

Court papers also describe information from a woman who had a run-in with Flores while skateboarding with friends. She told investigators she was 17 or 18 years old in August and September 1996, around the time she was skateboarding in San Luis Obispo with six to eight people, including Flores. 

"[A] radio advertisement came on that piqued everyone’s interest," court papers state. "A Public Service Announcement was read asking if anyone had information about Kristin Smart or her disappearance."

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According to court papers, "Flores responded to the PSA by saying that b---- was a d--- tease and that he was done playing with her. He buried/put her underneath his ramp in Huasna." 

Sept. 7, 2016: A sign outside the James R. Murphy, Jr. law office in Arroyo Grande, Calif., offers a reward for information in the 1996 disappearance of Kristin Smart.

Sept. 7, 2016: A sign outside the James R. Murphy, Jr. law office in Arroyo Grande, Calif., offers a reward for information in the 1996 disappearance of Kristin Smart. (AP)

The woman allegedly couldn’t recall if Flores said "put her" or "buried" when uttering the sentence, court papers state. 

"It did not appear to [the woman] that he was joking as he was not laughing or smiling," documents allege. She then left, and said she "vomited" the next time she saw him.

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But she did not contact the police "because she was afraid, and he knew people she hung out with." It was decades before her account came out in the "Your Own Backyard" Podcast, a popular series about the case. 

TO PROSECUTE A CASE WITHOUT A BODY

In this April 15, 2021, file photo defendants Paul Flores, top left, and his father, Ruben Flores, bottom right, appear via video conference during their arraignment in San Luis Obispo Superior Court in San Luis Obispo, Calif. 

In this April 15, 2021, file photo defendants Paul Flores, top left, and his father, Ruben Flores, bottom right, appear via video conference during their arraignment in San Luis Obispo Superior Court in San Luis Obispo, Calif.  (AP Photo/Nic Coury, File)

Daniel Bibb, a former Manhattan assistant district attorney-turned criminal defense attorney, prosecuted New York City Dr. Robert Bierenbaum for the 1985 murder of his wife, Gail Katz. 

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The prosecutor accused Bierenbaum, a former plastic surgeon and pilot, of strangling his wife and then dumping her body from an airborne plane as it hovered over the Atlantic Ocean.  He and his team secured a conviction against Bierenbaum in October 2000. 

Twenty years later, Bierenbaum confessed to the murder during a parole board hearing. 

Ruben Flores, father of Paul Flores, sits in court Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Kristin Smart disappeared during her freshman year at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo more than 25 years ago.

Ruben Flores, father of Paul Flores, sits in court Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Kristin Smart disappeared during her freshman year at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo more than 25 years ago. (David Middlecamp/The Tribune (of San Luis Obispo) via AP, Pool,File)

The account of events that prosecutors argued was nearly exact to what had Bibb said happened. Speaking to Fox News Digital, Bibb said prosecutors’ portrayal "was the only explanation that was reasonable." 

"There were two aspects to building this case: The first was, can we prove that she is deceased? … And looking at all evidence – not only the evidence as it existed then, but the evidence that was developed," he explained. "There are two issues here: Is she dead, and who killed her?" 

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A criminal case does not require physical evidence – circumstantial evidence is sufficient. But a lack of physical evidence makes a case extremely more difficult. 

Paul Flores puts on a new N95 mask Aug. 3, 2021, at a preliminary hearing in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Paul Flores puts on a new N95 mask Aug. 3, 2021, at a preliminary hearing in San Luis Obispo, Calif. (David Middlecamp/The Tribune (of San Luis Obispo) via AP, Pool,File)

He added: "The problem was, could we prove it beyond a reasonable doubt? And when we were done investigating and we … sat down and went over it piece-by-piece, we came to the conclusion that she was dead, and he did it."

Bibb called the Bierenbaum prosecution "the toughest case of our career." 

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"There's no physical evidence, there's no confession. This was the toughest trial we were going to have ever," he went on. "And after that, I didn't have a tougher one, and before I hadn’t had one."