California college student Kristin Smart was killed during an attempted rape, district attorney says

Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY
·3 min read

The "prime suspect" in the 25-year-disappearance of California college student Kristin Smart was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of murder, the San Luis Obispo Sheriff's Department announced.

Paul Flores, 44, the last person seen with Smart before she vanished in 1996, was taken into custody in the Los Angeles area. His father, Ruben Flores, 80, was also arrested at his Arroyo Grande home.

Smart was killed during an attempted rape, the San Luis Obispo County district attorney said Wednesday.

Paul Flores will be charged with first-degree murder and his father, will be charged with accessory after murder for helping him conceal Smart's body, which has never been found, District Attorney Dan Dow said.

Flores killed Smart in his dorm room, Dow said. Authorities have said physical evidence linked to her has been recovered.

In 2011, "I requested a complete review of all the physical evidence that had ever been taken in the [Smart] case," said San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson at a Tuesday news conference. "In late 2016, we discovered additional evidence that confirmed that Paul was the suspect in the disappearance."

Smart, 19, of Stockton, California, vanished in May 1996 while returning to her dorm at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo after a party. She was seen with Paul Flores, who was a student at the time.

Investigators, who launched a renewed search Tuesday at his father's property, believe they know where the body was buried.

"We are not going to stop until Kristen has been recovered no matter what the cost, no matter what the time," Parkinson said. "We will find Kristen."

Related: Family of Kristin Smart, who went missing in 1996, says there's no news coming soon

This undated photo released by the FBI shows Kristin Smart, the California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo student who disappeared in 1996.
This undated photo released by the FBI shows Kristin Smart, the California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo student who disappeared in 1996.

A spokesman for the Smart family issued a statement, saying the day was "bittersweet."

“It is impossible to put into words what this day means for our family. We pray it is the first step to bringing our daughter home,” the statement said. “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.”

Tuesday's announcement comes about a month after the sheriff named Paul Flores as the “prime suspect” in the case. Investigators searched his father’s home and property using ground-penetrating radar and cadaver dogs.

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Over 40 search warrants had been executed at 16 locations over the years, according to Parkinson. So much evidence had been compiled that it would fill three terabytes on a computer hard drive, Parkinson estimated.

In this March 16, 2021, file photo, an investigator uses ground penetrating radar to search the backyard of the home of Ruben Flores, in Arroyo Grande, Calif. Flores is the father of Paul Flores, who remains the prime suspect in the disappearance of Kristin Smart in 1996.
In this March 16, 2021, file photo, an investigator uses ground penetrating radar to search the backyard of the home of Ruben Flores, in Arroyo Grande, Calif. Flores is the father of Paul Flores, who remains the prime suspect in the disappearance of Kristin Smart in 1996.

New evidence came to light at least partly through the podcast "Your Own Backyard," an eight-part series detailing the Smart case. It has renewed and brought interest in the case locally, nationally and internationally, Parkinson said.

Shortly after the release of "Your Own Backyard" in 2019, police interviewed several witnesses connected to the podcast.

"I think what Chris [Lambert] did with his podcast was, he took a local story that was generally locally, and he expanded into a national story — international, actually, I will say, because once that message got out, we started getting more information," Parkinson said, referring to the podcast.

He added that the information produced was "valuable" and led to new evidence which allowed detectives to secure a court order to intercept Flores' calls and text messages.

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, RAINN offers support through the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE & online.rainn.org).

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kristin Smart was killed during an attempted rape, California DA says