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Prosecutor: Missing student killed during 1996 rape attempt

LOS ANGELES (AP)

UPDATE 4/14/2021 11:30 a.m. Missing California college student Kristin Smart was killed in 1996 during an attempted rape by a fellow student and the suspect’s father helped hide her body, the San Luis Obispo County district attorney said Wednesday.

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

The son and father were arrested Tuesday after years of investigations and searches that recently led to evidence connected to Smart’s killing.

Smart, 19, of Stockton, was last seen May 25, 1996, while returning to her dorm at California Polytechnic State University campus in San Luis Obispo after an off-campus party. She was inebriated at the time and Flores, a fellow freshman at the school, had offered to walk her home.

Flores killed Smart in his dorm room, Dow said. Investigators, who launched a renewed search Tuesday at his father’s property in nearby Arroyo Grande, believe they know where the body was buried.

Dow urged the public to come forward with any information they may have about the killing or other crimes Paul Flores may have committed.

In more recent years, Paul Flores frequented bars around his home in the Los Angeles area of San Pedro and may have committed other sexual assaults, Dow said.

Flores has been under suspicion from the earliest days of Smart’s disappearance. He has gone from being a “person of interest” to a “suspect” to “the prime suspect” — and, now, defendant.

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said the arrests came after a search of the elder Flores’ home last month using ground-penetrating radar and cadaver dogs that turned up new evidence linked to Smart’s killing.

“Until we return Kristin to (her family) this is not over,” Parkinson said.

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.”

Flores, 44, was arrested at his home in the San Pedro area of Los Angeles and taken to a police car in handcuffs wearing pajama bottoms and a surf T-shirt. His father, Ruben Flores, 80, was arrested at his Arroyo Grande home — about 15 miles (24 kilometers) south of the university.

The case picked up steam in the past couple years after Parkinson ordered a thorough review of the evidence and a fulltime cold case detective was hired.

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. He declined to offer more details because search warrants are sealed.

Parkinson also credited the podcast “Your Own Backyard” for giving the case renewed widespread attention that led to a key witness coming forward.

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.

“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 held his news conference on the university campus, gesturing over his shoulder to the place nearby where Smart was last seen alive with Flores. He acknowledged missteps by law enforcement hampered the investigation.

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.

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

The Smart family filed a $40 million lawsuit in 1996 against Paul Flores and added the university for allegedly not protecting their daughter. The case has been stayed awaiting a criminal case outcome, a family spokesman said.

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,” he said.

They served over 40 search warrants at 16 locations over the years, collected nearly 200 new items of evidence and used modern DNA techniques to test more than three dozen older pieces of evidence. So much evidence was compiled that it would fill three terabytes on a computer hard drive, he said.

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 the lawsuit brought against him.

Flores had nothing to say when arrested, Parkinson said.

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

Ruben Flores was being held on $250,000 bail. His lawyer, Harold Mesick, didn’t immediately return an email message seeking comment from The Associated Press but he told the Los Angeles Times that his client was “absolutely innocent.”

UPDATE 4/13/2021 2:30 p.m. The “prime suspect” was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of murder in the 25-year-old disappearance of California college student Kristin Smart.

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 as an accessory at his Arroyo Grande home, where sheriff’s investigators conducted their latest search for evidence.

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said search warrants were sealed and so he could not disclose what evidence led to the arrests, but he said Smart’s remains were not found.

“We have not recovered Kristin,” he told a news conference. “We will continue to focus on finding her remains regardless of any court action.”

Smart, 19, of Stockton, vanished in May 1996 while returning to her dorm at Cal Poly after a party. She was seen with Flores, who was a student at the school at the time.

San Luis Obispo jail records showed Paul Flores was booked on a murder charge. Defense attorney Robert Sanger declined to comment, though he confirmed Flores was arrested.

Ruben Flores was booked on suspicion of accessory after a felony, according to jail records.

A spokesman for the Smart family said “this is an extremely emotional day” and they would issue a statement later in the afternoon.

The news comes about a month after the sheriff named Flores as the “prime suspect” in the case and investigators searched his father’s home and property using ground-penetrating radar and cadaver dogs. The large home on a hill has been the subject of many searches.

Investigators executed another search warrant Tuesday at the home of Ruben Flores about 15 miles (24 kilometers) south of the university on California’s Central Coast, KSBY-TV reported. They appeared to be disassembling a deck outside the home and the sound of power saws and drills could be heard whining in the background.

Search warrants were served last year on Paul Flores’ home in the San Pedro area of Los Angeles and at other locations in California and Washington state. Investigators conducted digs on the campus in 2016.

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.

He was arrested in February on a weapons charge and released on bond. He has drunken driving convictions on his record in Los Angeles County.

PREVIOUS STORY: The “prime suspect” was arrested Tuesday in the 25-year-old disappearance of a California college student and the San Luis Obispo sheriff planned to announce “major developments” in the case.

Paul Flores, 44, who was the last person seen with Kristin Smart before she vanished in 1996, was taken into custody in the Los Angeles area. His father, Ruben Flores, 80, was arrested as an accessory at his Arroyo Grande home, where sheriff’s investigators conducted another search.

Defense attorney Robert Sanger confirmed Paul Flores was arrested in the Smart case, though no details were immediately available on the charges he faces. Sanger declined further comment.

Ruben Flores was booked on suspicion of accessory after a felony, according to San Luis Obispo County jail records.

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

Sheriff Ian Parkinson scheduled a news conference at 2 p.m. at the Cal Poly campus to discuss “major developments in the investigation” into Smart’s disappearance.

A spokesman for the Smart family said “this is an extremely emotional day” and they would issue a statement later in the afternoon.

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

Investigators served another search warrant Tuesday at the home of Ruben Flores about 15 miles (24 kilometers) south of the university on California’s Central Coast, KSBY-TV reported. They appeared to be disassembling a deck outside the home and the sound of power saws and drills could be heard whining in the background.

Search warrants were served last year on Paul Flores’ home in the San Pedro area of Los Angeles and at other locations in California and Washington state. Investigators conducted digs on the campus in 2016.

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.

He was arrested in February on a weapons charge and released on bond.

California News / Crime / Top Stories

The Associated Press

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