A San Luis Obispo County judge on Wednesday granted a change of venue for the trial of the accused killer of onetime Cal Poly student Kristin Smart, Paul Flores, and his accused accomplice father, Ruben Flores.
It's been nearly 26 years since the disappearance of 19-year-old Kristin Smart, who was last seen alive on her way home from an off-campus frat party on Memorial Day Weekend in 1996. In April 2021, Paul and Ruben Flores were arrested and charged with Smart's murder, after recent evidence had further implicated them — including digging in the backyard of Ruben Flores's Arroyo Grande home, where evidence of human blood was found in some recently disturbed dirt. Smart's body has still never been found.
Attorneys for the Floreses filed a motion for a change of venue earlier this month, citing the long and widespread media coverage of the case within the small county of San Luis Obispo that would make it hard to find unbiased jurors. And that motion was granted on Wednesday.
"I don’t think this case is discussed around dinner tables in other counties like it is in this county," said Judge Craig van Rooyen, per the San Luis Obispo Tribune. And, this means that Judge van Rooyen effectively ruled himself out of the running to preside over this high-profile case. Judge van Rooyen said that while he knew the community was heavily invested in the case and its outcome, both sides deserved a fair trial, and that could only happen elsewhere in the state.
Preliminary hearings in the case have been going on since last summer, and Judge van Rooyen ruled in September that there was sufficient evidence for the Floreses to stand trial. At the time, van Rooyen said he had a "strong suspicion" that Paul Flores killed Smart and that his father helped bury the body multiple times, but "Whether there’s proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that’s for a jury to decide."
The trial was set to begin April 25, but with the venue change, it's likely not to start now for some time. A status conference is scheduled for Monday, April 4, as the Associated Press reports.
Prosecutors contend that Paul Flores, now 45, lured an intoxicated Smart back to his Cal Poly dorm room on May 25, 1996, and that he likely killed her while attempting a sexual assault. Flores was photographed shortly after Smart's disappearance with a black eye, which he at different times said he got playing basketball, while working on his car, and that he woke up with it and didn't know where it came from.
The prosecution's theory in the case, based on a mountain of circumstantial evidence and even disturbing comments that Flores made months after the disappearance, according to witnesses, is that Flores murdered her in his dorm room, and that the body remained there for some period of time. Cadaver dogs alerted to a trash can and his bed frame in the dorm room, and to a wall outside the first-floor room's window — with the theory being that the body was likely removed out the window and into a waiting vehicle in the days after the murder.
Ruben Flores, 80, is believed to have assisted in the hiding of Smart's remains on at least a couple of occasions. After authorities renewed interest in Ruben Flores's Arroyo Grande property in February 2020, a neighbor has testified that a camper trailer appeared there one day and then left. Investigators would later find disturbed soil behind some latticework under a rear deck at the home, and the soil tested positive for remnants of human blood, but no DNA was recovered.
At the trial, multiple fellow Cal Poly students from the time are expected to testify as to Flores's behavior in the weeks and months before the murder, when he allegedly "hunted" Smart at her dorm multiple times and seemed obsessed with her. Other women at the school had nicknamed Flores "Chester the Molester" because of his generally creepy behavior.
And one witness is expected to testify about hearing an intoxicated Flores, at a social gathering in the summer of 1996, respond after seeing a TV ad about Smart being missing, allegedly saying something to the effect of "That bitch dick tease. I was at a party with this bitch and all she did was lead me on. I finally had enough of her shit, so I took care of her." He then allegedly said he buried her under his skate ramp in Huasna, which is where his family was living at the time.
The defense, meanwhile, will be expected to raise doubts in jurors minds by introducing evidence that convicted murderer Scott Peterson and his then girlfriend Laci, who were students at Cal Poly, were in attendance at the same frat party the night that Smart disappeared.
Photo courtesy of San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office