Kristin Smart: Declared legally dead. But what happened to her?

25 years after Kristin Smart went missing, a prime suspect was charged with murder.

The case of Kristin Smart, a young college student who vanished without a trace in 1996, has remained a haunting mystery for over two decades. The story of her disappearance has captivated the public’s attention and sparked numerous investigations, but answers remained elusive. However, recent developments and a renewed interest in the case have finally shed light on the truth behind Kristin’s fate. In this in-depth exploration, we will delve into the details of Kristin Smart’s life, the events leading up to her disappearance, the subsequent investigation, and the recent breakthroughs that have brought justice to her memory.

Kristin Smart
A restored photograph of Kristin Denise Smart in March 1995. FBI / Wikimedia Commons / Fair Use

The life of Kristin Smart

Kristin Denise Smart was born on February 20, 1977, in Augsburg, Bavaria, West Germany. Her parents, Stan and Denise Smart, were educators teaching children of American military service members stationed overseas. Kristin grew up in a loving family and had a brother and a sister. In the mid-1980s, the Smart family relocated to Stockton, California, where Kristin attended Lincoln High School. She was a dedicated student and actively participated in extracurricular activities, including lifeguarding and working as a camp counselor in Hawaii during the summers. In 1995, Kristin graduated from high school and embarked on a new chapter in her life: attending California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly).

The mysterious disappearance

On the night of May 25, 1996, Kristin Smart attended a birthday party at a fraternity house near the Cal Poly campus. It was Memorial Day weekend, and Kristin, a 19-year-old freshman, was looking forward to socializing with her peers. She arrived at the party alone, as her friend had decided to return to the dorms earlier. As the night progressed, Kristin found herself in the company of Paul Flores, a fellow Cal Poly student, who offered to walk her back to her nearby dormitory. This would be the last time anyone saw Kristin Smart alive.

The investigation

The official investigation into Kristin Smart’s disappearance was marred by delays and missteps. The campus police initially treated her case as a possible unannounced vacation, a common occurrence among students during holidays. It took a week for her family’s concerns to be taken seriously and for the local law enforcement to be notified. By then, crucial time had been lost, and the search for Kristin was already hindered.

Volunteers, including those on horseback and with ground-penetrating radar devices, scoured the area in search of any sign of Kristin. However, their efforts yielded no breakthroughs. Meanwhile, rumors began to circulate, connecting Kristin’s disappearance to the high-profile case of Laci Peterson, another missing woman who attended Cal Poly around the same time. However, these rumors proved to be unfounded, and no evidence was found linking the two cases.

Unfortunately, Kristin Smart was declared legally dead on May 25, 2002, the sixth anniversary of her disappearance.

The suspect: Paul Flores

Paul Flores, the last person seen with Kristin Smart before her disappearance, quickly became the primary suspect in the investigation. Flores, a fellow student at Cal Poly, had walked Kristin back to her dormitory that fateful night. However, his inconsistent statements and suspicious behavior raised red flags for investigators.

During interviews with authorities, Flores changed his story multiple times, particularly regarding a black eye he had sustained. Trained cadaver dogs brought in to search the Cal Poly dorms reacted to Flores’ room, further deepening the suspicions surrounding him. However, despite the mounting evidence, law enforcement struggled to gather enough concrete evidence to make an arrest.

In 2005, Kristin’s parents, Denise and Stan Smart, filed a civil case of wrongful death against Flores. The Smart family was represented by James R. Murphy, on a pro bono basis. The suit was dropped due to lack of evidence after Flores pleaded the Fifth Amendment. In 2006 or 2007, the Flores family filed a lawsuit against the Smart family for emotional distress, but the lawsuit never resulted in a judgment.

The case became cold

During the period of 2011–2016, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office conducted multiple reviews of the case and invested countless hours and resources into the investigation. The FBI listed Smart as a high priority missing person case and offered a reward of $75,000 for information that could have helped find her or bring her case to a close. Terry Black, a resident of the Delta area, increased the reward to $100,000 for anyone who could provide Smart’s body. Despite all this, the case gradually went cold as time passed.

The podcast that reignited interest

In 2019, Chris Lambert, a freelance journalist, released a podcast called “Your Own Backyard,” focusing on Kristin Smart’s disappearance. Lambert, who grew up in the area and had a personal connection to the case, aimed to reignite public interest and generate new leads. The podcast quickly gained traction and garnered thousands of streams, catching the attention of both the public and law enforcement.

Date rape drugs: New evidence emerges

As interest in Kristin Smart’s case surged following the podcast’s release, new witnesses and information began to emerge. Multiple individuals came forward, alleging that Paul Flores had a reputation for inappropriate behavior towards women, even earning the nickname “Chester the Molester.” These testimonies provided crucial insights into Flores’ character and potential involvement in Kristin’s disappearance.

On April 22, 2020, the Los Angeles Times reported that a search warrant was served at the home of Paul Flores in San Pedro, California. It was reported that numerous “items of interest” were successfully found during the search. Among the items found in the search were date rape drugs and homemade videos showing Flores in acts of sodomizing and raping young women.

Kristin Smart
Paul Flores (left) and his father Ruben Ricardo Flores (right) were charged for 1996 Murder of Kristin Smart. Although, Ruben Flores has later been found not guilty of being an accessory to Smart’s murder. County of San Luis Obispo, California / Fair Use

In October 2022, over 26 years after Kristin’s vanishing, a California jury found Paul Flores guilty of her murder. The trial revealed a harrowing account of the events that unfolded on that fateful night. It was established that Flores had accompanied Kristin back to his dormitory, Santa Lucia Hall, where he committed an act of violence that took her life. The evidence presented during the trial, including the reactions of cadaver dogs to Flores’ room and witnesses’ testimonies, solidified the case against him.

Justice served: Sentencing and closure

In March 2023, Paul Flores was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for the murder of Kristin Smart. The sentencing brought a sense of closure to Kristin’s family, who had tirelessly fought for justice for over two decades. While questions still linger about the exact details of what transpired that night, the conviction of Flores represents a significant milestone in the long and arduous journey to uncover the truth.

The legacy of Kristin Smart

The disappearance and subsequent murder of Kristin Smart had a profound impact, not only on her family but also on the community and the country as a whole. The case exposed flaws in the initial investigation and sparked discussions about campus safety and the handling of missing person cases. In response to Kristin’s tragedy, the Kristin Smart Campus Security Act was passed, requiring public colleges and educational institutions to have agreements with local police departments for reporting cases involving violence against students, including missing persons.

Final words

The mystery surrounding Kristin Smart’s disappearance has haunted the public for over two decades. However, the relentless efforts of investigators, the emergence of new evidence, and the power of investigative journalism brought long-awaited justice to her memory. While the exact details of that tragic night may never be fully known, the conviction of Paul Flores serves as a reminder that even the most elusive cases can be solved with determination and perseverance. Kristin Smart’s legacy lives on, not only in the hearts of her loved ones but also in the lasting impact she has had on awareness and safety measures within educational institutions.

After reading about the tragic story of Kristin Smart, read about Katarzyna Zowada — a 23-year-old Polish student who was murdered and skinned alive!