Baltimore Sun

Trial of 2 accused in ’96 killing to begin, despite body missing

- By Brian Melley

LOS ANGELES — The smiling face of Kristin Smart still looks out from a billboard in front of attorney James Murphy Jr.’s law office more than 25 years after the college freshman vanished from a campus on California’s picturesqu­e central coast.

It once offered a $75,000 reward to help find the college student, but these days the billboard simply says: “Justice For Kristin.”

Smart is still missing, but the man last seen with her at California Polytechni­c State University in San Luis Obispo in 1996 is on trial more than a year after he was arrested on a murder charge along with his father, who is accused of helping hide her body.

Opening statements were scheduled Monday in Monterey County Superior Court in Salinas in the trial of Paul Flores and his father, Ruben Flores, who is charged as an accessory. Both men have pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutor­s claim the younger Flores, now 45, killed the 19-year-old during an attempted rape on May 25, 1996, in his dorm room at Cal Poly, where both were first-year students. They allege his father, now 81, helped bury the slain student behind his home in the nearby community of Arroyo Grande and later dug up the remains and moved them.

Paul Flores had long been considered a suspect in the killing, but prosecutor­s only arrested him and his father in 2021 after the investigat­ion was revived.

San Luis Obispo Sheriff Ian Parkinson acknowledg­ed missteps by detectives over the years, and he credited a popular podcast about Smart’s disappeara­nce called “Your Own Backyard” for helping

unearth new informatio­n and inspiring witnesses to speak with investigat­ors.

Smart’s remains have never been found and the mystery of how she vanished from the scenic campus tucked against a verdant coastal mountain range is likely to be central to the trial.

Investigat­ors have conducted dozens of searches over two decades, but turned their attention in the past two years to Ruben Flores’ home about 12 miles south of Cal Poly in the community of Arroyo Grande.

Behind lattice work beneath the deck of his large house on a dead end street off Tally Ho Road, archaeolog­ists working for police in March 2021 found a soil disturbanc­e about the size of a casket and the presence of human blood, prosecutor­s said.

The blood was too degraded to extract a DNA sample. While a blood expert said it was human blood, the test used did not rule out the possibilit­y it was from a ferret or ape, though court records said no remains of such an animal were found there.

Murphy, who has sued the father and son on behalf of Smart’s parents, scoffed at the idea that it was anything other than human blood.

“The size of the area in which the blood was found would make it a prehistori­c ferret that would be in Jurassic Park,” Murphy said. “When was the last time you drove down Tally Ho Road in Arroyo Grande and saw a primate?”

The lawsuit Murphy filed on behalf of Smart’s parents against Ruben Flores alleged that “under cover of darkness,” the father and unnamed accomplice­s moved the body four days after investigat­ors searched his house in February 2020. Investigat­ors didn’t conduct their dig beneath the deck until more than a year later.

San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Craig Van Rooyen ordered the pair to trial after a 22-day preliminar­y hearing last year in which he found a “strong suspicion” the father and son committed the crimes they were charged with, that a grave existed under Ruben Flores’ deck, and it once held Smart’s remains.

Prosecutor­s, defense lawyers and San Luis Obispo sheriff ’s deputies are constraine­d by a court order prohibitin­g them from discussing the case.

Attorney Harold Mesick, who represents Ruben Flores, previously said the evidence unearthed was ambiguous. He said that soil under the deck had been dumped there after being excavated to lay a foundation nearby.

Earlier this year, Van Rooyen ruled in favor of a defense request to move the trial out of San Luis Obispo County because it was unlikely the two men could receive a fair trial with so much notoriety in the city of about 47,000 people.

The case was moved 110 miles north to Salinas.

Separate juries were selected to weigh the evidence against each defendant. The trial is expected to last about four months.

 ?? FBI ?? Kristin Smart, seen in an undated photo, disappeare­d in 1996 in California.
FBI Kristin Smart, seen in an undated photo, disappeare­d in 1996 in California.

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