‘Prime suspect’ arrested in 1996 disappearance of student

AP National News

FILE – This undated photo released by the FBI shows Kristin Smart, the California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo student who disappeared in 1996. The San Luis Obispo County sheriff plans a major announcement Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in the nearly 25-year mystery of the disappearance of Smart. (FBI via AP, File)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The longtime suspect in the 25-year-old disappearance of California college student Kristin Smart was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of murder and his father was booked in jail as an accessory to the crime.

Paul Flores, 44, who was the last person seen with Smart on the California Polytechnic State University campus in San Luis Obispo before she vanished in 1996, was taken into custody in the Los Angeles area. His father, Ruben Flores, 80, was arrested at his Arroyo Grande home, where sheriff’s investigators conducted their latest search for evidence.

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said the arrest warrants were issued after a search of the elder Flores’ home last month using ground-penetrating radar and cadaver dogs. He said evidence was found linked to the killing of Smart but they had not yet located her body.

“Until we return Kristin to (her family) this is not over,” Parkinson said. “We have committed to them that we are not going to stop until it has been recovered no matter what the cost, no matter what the time.”

Smart, 19, of Stockton, vanished May 25, 1996, while returning to her dorm at Cal Poly after an off-campus party. She was last seen with Flores, a student at the school at the time, who had offered to take her home.

Flores has been under suspicion almost from the start, but the case has picked up steam in the past couple years. New witnesses came forward and warrants allowed investigators to intercept and monitor Paul Flores’ phone and text messages and search his own home, along with those of his mother, father and sister that turned up new evidence, Parkinson said, though he declined to offer details because search warrants are sealed.

Smart’s family issued a statement saying it was a bittersweet day they had long waited for and a first step toward bringing their daughter home.

“While Kristin’s loving spirit will always live in our hearts, our life without her hugs, laughs and smiles is a heartache that never abates,” they said. “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.”

The arrest took 10 years from the time Parkinson ordered a thorough review of the case when he was elected, followed by hiring a full-time cold case detective and renewed attention from the podcast “Your Own Backyard.”

The podcast’s creator, Chris Lambert, was a musician who grew up in the area and was intrigued by a billboard offering a $75,000 reward for information leading to Smart. He decided to dig deeper.

“Driving past that billboard was a periodic reminder that, oh yeah, they still haven’t found that girl,” Lambert said in a video posted on the podcast website. ”It’s different when somebody goes missing in your own backyard.”

Parkinson credited the podcast for bringing forth new witnesses.

Standing on the campus near where Smart was last seen alive with Flores, Parkinson acknowledged missteps by law enforcement hampered the investigation.

Smart’s family said in their statement that “an indifference and lack of resolve we experienced early on set the course for many years.”

Smart wasn’t reported missing until three days after she was last seen. A dorm mate at the time said police were initially reluctant to take a missing persons report because it was Memorial Day weekend and she might have left the campus.

The case was originally handled by Cal Poly police and the district attorney’s office. Sheriff’s investigators didn’t get involved until a month later.

“There really is no hiding the fact that there was mistakes made early on and it made it much more difficult,” Parkinson said. “You know that first 48 hours is pretty critical in a missing person or a homicide.”

Parkinson likened the case to a puzzle where missing pieces are located, leading to new evidence and locations to search that then revealed other information.

“It’s a very slow process to find each of those little pieces,” Parkinson said. “There was something of value in various locations that have kept coming up and coming to light.”

They served over 40 search warrants at 16 locations over the years and so much evidence was compiled that it would fill three terabytes on a computer hard drive, he said.

Flores went from a “person of interest” to a “suspect,” as the case progressed, and eventually became the “prime suspect.”

Paul Flores has remained mum through the years, invoking his Fifth Amendment right to not answer questions before a grand jury and in a deposition for a lawsuit that was brought against him.

Flores was being held without bail. His lawyer, Robert Sanger, declined to comment.

Ruben Flores was being held on $250,000 bail. It wasn’t immediately clear who his lawyer was.

Investigators executed a search warrant at Ruben Flores’ home about 15 miles (24 kilometers) south of the university. They continued to use radar to search the grounds and the sound of power saws and drills whined in the background. KSBY-TV said it appeared they were disassembling a large deck outside the home and The Tribune of San Luis Obispo said it appeared they were working in the garage.

The mayor of Arroyo Grande said the arrests had brought a sense of relief to the city of about 18,000 people that sits just inland from the scenic Central Coast.

“The disappearance of Kristin Smart has weighed heavily on the hearts of the people of Arroyo Grande all this time,” Mayor Caren Ray Russom said. “She was never forgotten here, and many, many of us have closely followed this case for decades. … I sincerely hope that these arrests will result in justice and closure for the Smart family.”

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Associated Press reporter John Antczak contributed to this report.

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