A San Luis Obispo County judge ruled Wednesday that Paul Flores, the last person seen with 19-year-old Cal Poly freshman Kristin Smart after a party 25 years ago, should stand trial for her murder — and that there was probable cause to suspect that Flores's father, Ruben Flores, helped dispose of Smart's body.
The ruling by San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen comes after a 22-day preliminary hearing that concluded Monday in which the district attorney presented a host of compelling evidence, much of it circumstantial, tying Flores both to creepy behavior toward his female classmates, and to the disappearance of Smart. Also, a prosecution witness testified that she heard Flores confess — brag, actually — to killing Smart and disposing of her body under his skate ramp.
Van Rooyen said that despite the lack of DNA evidence linking the crime scenes to Smart, he had a "strong suspicion" that Paul Flores killed Smart and that his father helped bury the body multiple times. "Whether there’s proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that’s for a jury to decide," van Rooyen said, per the San Luis Obispo Tribune.
The parties will be back in court for an arraignment on October 20, at which time a tentative trial date will be set. A legal expert consulted by the Tribune suggested it could be well over a year or more before a trial actually occurs, given the amount of discovery and evidence gathering necessary in a murder trial. And that could be delayed further if the defense requests a change of venue, given the high-profile nature and long public history of this case. That process could begin with a survey conducted of county residents by phone.
Among the revelations of the preliminary hearing, besides the alleged confession that Flores gave while hanging out with friends in 1996, we learned of the many people at the Memorial Day Weekend party that year who witnessed Flores behaving aggressively toward women. The prosecution is expected to call witnesses including friends and a roommate of Flores, to whom Flores allegedly lied about a black eye he had in the days following Smart's disappearance.
We also learned that cadaver dogs alerted to several parts of Flores's dorm room, where prosecutors believe Smart was killed. And that in the past year, soil underneath a deck behind Ruben Flores's Arroyo Grande home appeared disturbed and tested positive for human blood.
Smart's body still has not been recovered.
As the Associated Press notes, when he was initially questioned by the district attorney’s investigative bureau in 1996, Flores was asked what he thought happened to Smart. He said she "probably" left the area with someone, and he thought she was dead.
Prosecutors may offer a plea deal to one or both men, and may seek to get information on the whereabouts of Smart's body before a trial happens.
Ruben Flores, who is 80, has been out on bail since April, while Paul Flores will remain in custody.