A 26-year-old mystery out of San Luis Obispo that began as a years-long missing-persons case came to a dramatic conclusion Tuesday, as Paul Flores was found guilty in the murder of 19-year-old Kristin Smart. His father, Ruben Flores, was found not guilty by a separate jury of being an accessory after the fact.
The three-month trial of longtime person-of-interest turned prime suspect Paul Flores, 45, and his father came to an end Tuesday with Paul Flores found guilty of first-degree murder.
Flores now faces a sentence of 25 years to life.
The verdict from the jury hearing the case against Ruben Flores was read second, and that jury acquitted the elder Flores of the accessory charge, as the San Luis Obispo Tribune reports.
Despite investigators never having found Smart's remains, prosecutors pushed forward with charges in 2021, finally believing, 25 years after Smart's disappearance, that they had enough compelling evidence to convict Paul Flores in her killing
Paul Flores is guilty of the first degree murder of Kristin Smart— Your Own Backyard Podcast (@YOBPodcast) October 18, 2022
The verdict against Paul Flores is the culmination of decades of investigative work, and some degree of closure for Smart's family.
As the San Luis Obispo Tribune reported from the courtroom, Monterey County Superior Court Judge Jennifer O’Keefe thanked the jurors in Paul Flores's case, saying, "I wish to express to you the appreciation and that of the parties for your service in this case. It is a great personal sacrifice to serve as a juror... you have been very attentive and conscientious throughout this case."
A podcast called Your Own Backyard has been closely following the case and the trial, and journalist Chris Lambert, who is behind the podcast and who at one point was suggested as a possible witness in the trial, was in the courtroom Tuesday — and he noted that local and national media in the building had made sure he was given a press badge.
The two Flores men were tried together but their fates were decided by separate juries. Paul Flores, who was in the freshman class at Cal Poly alongside Smart and whom witnesses in the trial described as a creepy stalker who'd been given the nickname "Chester the Molester," was charged with Smart's murder. The prosecution laid out a theory, backed up by circumstantial and physical evidence, that Flores walked an extremely intoxicated Smart back to his dorm room on May 25, 1996, where he assaulted and then murdered her. In the following days, it's believed that Flores's family helped him remove and bury her body on their property — and investigators laid out evidence that the body's last likely location was under a back deck at Ruben Flores's home in Arroyo Grande. Ground-penetrating radar indicated the disturbance of a patch of soil, and forensic testing revealed the presence of human blood.
Ruben Flores, 81, was charged with being an accessory after the fact.
The trial was granted a change of venue earlier this year, when a San Luis Obispo County judge agreed with defense attorneys that the local community had far too much knowledge of the 26-year-old case to avoid bias. The two men were instead tried in Salinas, in next-door Monterey County.
As KRON4 reports, in his opening statements at the trial, Deputy District Attorney Christopher Peuvrelle discussed how Ruben Flores's behavior after Smart's disappearance was particularly outrageous. "While the entire community banded together to search for Kristin desperately, Paul and Ruben did not. Ruben tore down missing posters of Kristin showing her smiling beautiful face, called her a 'dirty slut,' all while her corpse was decomposing under his deck,” Peuvrelle said.
A key witness in the trial who only came forward in 2019, Jennifer Hudson, was a long-ago acquaintance of Paul Flores who remembered hanging out with him and other skateboarders in the summer of 1996. Hudson testified last month that Flores commented out loud after seeing a TV commercial about Smart being missing, bragging, "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."
The Floreses' defense attorneys relied heavily on the fact that Smart's body was never found, telling the jury, "Conspiracy theories are fun," and "It’s not entirely unlikely that Kristin Smart is still alive somewhere."
Prosecutors are expected to give a press conference at 4 p.m.
Update: Per the New York Times, Smart's father, Stan Smart, spoke to reporters and said that without a guilty verdict for Ruben Flores, the family would continue seeking justice. And, he added, it had been an "agonizingly long journey with more downs than ups," and "without Kristin, there is no joy or happiness in this verdict."