The Disappearance of Kristin Smart


Courtesy of Napa Valley Registry

Kristen Smart was a freshman at Cal Poly who was abducted and murdered in 1996. Her accused murderer awaits trial.

Paige Reddick, Photojournalist

As of April 13, 2021, there has been an official arrest made in a case spanning 25 years. On this date, Paul Flores and his father Ruben Flores were arrested in relation to the disappearance of Kristin Smart, who disappeared in 1996 as a freshman at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obisbo, California. After years of unanswered questions, dead-ends, re-examinations, and constant dismay, the details surrounding the disappearance and murder of Kristin Smart may soon be revealed. 

Kristin Smart was born on February 20, 1977 in West Germany. She and her family soon moved to Stockton, California, where Smart attended Lincoln High School. She then began the continuation of her education at Cal Poly. On May 25, 1996, the conclusion of Smart’s freshman year of college, she attended a friend’s birthday party at a fraternity home. After an overconsumption of alcohol, Smart was found in an extremely intoxicated state. Two partygoers spotted Smart as they were leaving the party and decided to walk her home to her dormitory. Another partygoer, Paul Flores, joined the group of three to walk back to the dormitories. As the two initial walkers left Smart to walk to their own homes, Flores stayed with Smart, assuring the other walkers that he would return her safely to her dorm. While Flores claims that he was the last to see Smart prior to her disappearance, the two walkers were the last individuals, other than Flores, to see Smart alive. 

In the days following her disappearance, Smart was initially believed by the University Police Department to be on an unannounced vacation; thus, the filing of a missing persons report was delayed, which proved to be detrimental to the finding of Smart. However, after communication was not accomplished with Smart, the search for her began, and rewards for any information regarding the case were established. The continual searches proved to be unsuccessful, and no new leads arose. Although, it was revealed many years later that in the early stages of the investigation, an earring that was assumed to belong to Smart was found by the tenant of a property that had previously belonged to Paul Flores’ mother. This earring was then lost by the police and was never recovered, proving to be the second detrimental mistake in this case. Smart was legally declared dead on May 25, 2002, six years after her disappearance.

For the two decades following 1996, searches for Smart’s remains continued, some occurring at the properties of the Flores family and some occurring at the Cal Poly campus. Flores continually remained a suspect in the case as Smart was last seen with him. While police stated that items were recovered from these searches, no new leads arose.

As hope declined for the finding of Smart’s remains, a new desire to solve the case was sparked by the true-crime podcast community. Commencing on September 30, 2019, Chris Lambert curated a series of eight podcast episodes that discussed the disappearance of Smart. The podcasts received more than six million downloads, and the public demanded the truth of the disappearance be revealed. 

This resurgence soon proved to be impactful, and on January 29, 2020, the San Luis Obispo police department stated that two of Paul Flores’ trucks had been taken into evidence. On February 5, 2020, the police served search warrants to the Flores family at four different locations. On April 22, 2020, another search warrant was served at Flores’ home in San Pedro, California. “Items of interest” were reported to be found in this search. 

On February 11, 2021, nearly a year later from the last major update in the case, Flores was arrested for being a felon in the possession of a firearm. Shortly after March 15, 2021, a search warrant was served at the home of Ruben Flores, Paul Flores’ father, and multiple items were taken into police custody, including an automobile. However, the most major break in the case occurred on April 13, 2021: Paul Flores and Ruben Flores were arrested for their relation to the disappearance of Smart. The charges include first-degree murder for Paul Flores and accessory to murder for Ruben Flores. Lastly, on April 20, 2021, the prosecutor in the case revealed that Smart’s body was buried underneath the deck at the home of Ruben Flores, but the body had been recently removed. This information was acquired through cadaver dogs and ground-penetrating radar. Sterling Millsap (12) was incredibly shocked by this news and hopes that Smart’s family “will find closure once the true details of this case are revealed and that justice is served to the perpetrators.” The trial awaits Paul and Ruben Flores.

This case has been defined by many years of stagnant progress and mistakes, but recent years reveal the ability for cold cases to resurface. When looking at the legacy of Smart, the Kristin Smart Campus Security Act was ratified in the early stages of the case in 1999. This act requires public colleges to mandate their security services to work closely with the local police on cases of violence against students. While this act serves to protect California students, it also serves as a reminder for the security teams and police forces that failed Smart. Hopefully, this case can personify the detrimental effects of failing to act quickly in disappearance cases and the mishandling of evidence. As people await trial, they may find comfort in the fact that closure may be coming to the Smart family.