In May 1996, California Polytechnic State University student Kristen Smart (19) attended an off-campus party with some friends. At around 2am, fellow students Paul Flores and Sheryl Anderson were accompanying an intoxicated Kristen Smart home after finding her passed out on the lawn. Sheryl split off from Kristen and Paul part of the way back to return to her own dorm, but not before seeking assurance from Paul that he would see Kristen home safe. After that, Kristen was never seen again. Unsurprisingly, Paul was the prime suspect from day one.
Several mistakes were made in the very early days of the investigation; firstly the police weren’t actually involved for a full month – campus security was overseeing the case instead. Secondly, it wasn’t initially treated as a missing person case because it was Memorial Day weekend and the authorities assumed Kristen was visiting family or otherwise left campus of her own volition for the weekend.
Over the years, many interviews have taken place trying to establish what happened that night and where Kristen ended up – at the time of writing, her body has not been found. In 2002, Kristen was declared legally deceased. The Flores family have been among those questioned and have accused police of harassing them over the case.
Chris Lambert grew up nearby and remembers hearing about Kristen’s disappearance as a child. Frustrated that the case hadn’t been solved, in 2019 he decided to launch a podcast called Your Own Backyard to discuss the case. He believed Kristen’s remains to be still in the area, hence the podcasts name.
As part of his podcast, Chris spoke initially to her parents to obtain their permission, and then her friends. Her friends told stories of Paul always being too close for comfort. At high school, the girls wouldn’t be alone with him, especially when drunk, and called him creepy and scary. They remembered Paul being pushy and overly affectionate, demanding kisses and hugs, and showing up at parties and gatherings he hadn’t been invited to.
A former co-worker of Paul’s remembers him following her home after work one night, a mile down a road that only her house was on. When confronted, he said he just wanted to know where she lived. Some male employees pulled him aside for a private conversation to try and discourage the behaviour.
At university, campus security was called one night because there was a man on the trellis outside a female’s room who refused to leave. The man was Paul Flores. When Chris interviews people who knew Paul at various points in his life, few were surprised to hear he was the main suspect in the disappearance and possible murder of Kristen.
An exchange-student was walking home on the night Kristen went missing, at around 2am, near the point where Kristen and Paul separated from Sheryl. He remembers seeing a couple, matching Paul and Kristen’s description having a fight inside one of the campus buildings. He recalls it not being a friendly, romantic or jovial, but as if the woman was trying to get away. Police at the time believed this to be different people in a different building.
Another incident the podcast uncovered was when Paul was in 8th grade, he attacked another student, beating him in the head until he needed hospital treatment. Paul’s parents were ordered by a court to pay for the other student’s medical bills as a result. The court also recommended that Paul attend anger management, something that Paul’s parents refused to do.
On 27th May 1996, Paul was arrested for failing to appear in court over driving with a suspended licence. At the time of this arrest, Paul had a black eye and scratches on his hands which he initially claimed happened during a basketball match. What’s important about this is arrest happened two days after Kristen had gone missing but before the police became involved – the campus police still believed Kristen to be staying at friends over the long weekend. Police spoke to the friend Paul played basketball with who confirmed that he had the black eye before the game. It could well have been an injury Kristen inflicted on him in a struggle, why else would he have lied about how it happened?
Once the police were involved, they searched the university dormitories. Unfortunately, the school year had ended and cleaners had already been in so little was found. Cadaver dogs were brought in to see if they could detect anything, their handlers knowing nothing about the situation other than a girl was missing. One of the dogs did alert outside one of the rooms. To rule out anomaly, another dog was brought in and alerted outside the same room. In total, four separate dogs alerted to the room that had belonged to Paul Flores.
Susan Flores, Paul’s mother, lived separately from his father Ruben and Paul at the time of Kristen’s disappearance. The back garden of Susan’s home had concrete work done in May 1996, and shortly afterwards the property went up for rent. When Chris spoke to the tenant who moved in, she recalls hearing an alarm going off at 4.20am every morning from the garden. Kristen was a lifeguard and her shifts started at 5am, so her digital watch having a 4.20am alarm is entirely plausible. A lot of people believe Kristen to be buried under the concrete in Susan’s back garden. Several searches have been done of the property, but often without full permission so are too-limited to fully rule out the theory. One of these searches was of the neighbour’s garden (who had given full permission) by a cadaver dog who alerted in the corner nearest the spot where the alarm could be heard. Soil samples were taken from that corner, and tested positive for chemicals consistent with human remains.
There were a lot of mistakes made in the investigation, many things that should have been done differently. One positive change did come from these mistakes; in August 1998 the Governor of California signed the Kristen Smart Campus Safety Act into law which requires all campus security investigations to liaise with the police from the beginning. One thing Chris did so well with the podcast was to collate all of the information various people and agencies have collected over the years.
New witnesses have spoken to police after hearing the podcast. As a result of this, police have been able to obtain a search warrant for Paul’s phone records, computers and are also testing cars owned by the family in 1996 for evidence.
During a search of the Flores home as a result of the podcast, police found evidence “related to the murder of Kristin Smart” (latimes.com) which has been crucial in their investigation using cadaver dogs and ground-penetrating radar. Among the roughly 200 pieces of new evidence, tests are being run on old evidence with new equipment and technology now available. Police aren’t divulging too much information at this stage so as not to influence any potential jurors.
Subsequently, the police arrested Paul Flores for murder that happened during an attempted sexual assault. His father, Ruben Flores, has also been arrested for accessory to murder. Paul has no bail set, and his father’s bail is set at $250,000. Both father and son have pled not-guilty to the charges.
Ruben Flores’ bail has since been reduced to $50,000 which has been paid. Ruben’s lawyer pled his case that Ruben is 80 years old and of ill health, he is not a flight risk. Conditions of his bail are that he surrenders his passport and wears an ankle monitor.
For Kristen Smart’s family, it’s a time of many emotions, that there’s a chance to finally have closure is a relief, but until they can properly say goodbye and lay Kristen to rest, it’s not over. Kristen has now been missing longer than she was alive. They have hopes that these arrests will finally make that possible. Kristen’s family have 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” (news.sky.com).
For an incredibly in-depth breakdown of the case, please find the Your Own Backyard podcast by Chris Lambert here.