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Newsletter: A new twist in an enduring cold case

Kristin Smart
Kristin Smart was a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student when she vanished in 1996. Smart was declared legally dead in 2002, though her body was never recovered.
(Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Feb. 6, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

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On a warm Friday night nearly 24 years ago, a college freshman went looking for a party.

This was Memorial Day weekend 1996 — Michael Jordan was about to take the Chicago Bulls to the NBA Finals, Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” was topping the charts, and Bill Clinton was still in his first term in the Oval Office.

The 19-year-old girl ended up at an unofficial frat house near the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus. By early Saturday morning, she was in no condition to walk home alone, and other students escorted her nearly all the way back to her dorm. But she never made it back to her room in Muir Hall.

The 1996 disappearance of Kristin Smart sparked massive national media interest, and her name and face are still well-known to many on the Central Coast. But the case remains unsolved.

[See also: “A Cold Case, a Haunting Mystery” from the Los Angeles Times in 2006]

Busloads of volunteers, horses and ground-penetrating radar were called in for the search after Kristin went missing. Helicopters hovered and cadaver dogs sniffed. Sizable rewards were offered. Painful, exploding hope came briefly in the form of supernatural tips, but directions from local psychics and a self-described dowser led nowhere. Theories bloomed but never bore fruit.

Time ticked forward. As their daughter’s college classmates graduated, got jobs and started families, Denise and Stan Smart hounded law enforcement. They raised money to keep Kristin’s face on billboards, planned “fun runs” in her memory and launched a scholarship fund for college-bound women from San Luis Obispo and San Joaquin counties.

“You live because you can’t give up,” Denise Smart told the Stockton Record in 2008. “Because it’s not just a battle to find your daughter. It’s a battle to have the right thing done. It’s a battle to have people do their job.” In 2002, Kristin was declared legally dead. The family continued to agitate for leads, but there was no real evidence, and no body was ever found.

There was, however, a suspect. Paul Flores, then a 19-year-old fellow Cal Poly student, was the last person with Kristin as she walked toward the dorms that night. When he was interviewed by police, there were inconsistencies in his story — including a shifting explanation for why he had a black eye the morning after Kristin disappeared. A month later, when sheriff’s deputies brought in a team of dogs trained to react to wherever a dead body has been, they barked and scratched at Flores’ dorm room door and then bee-lined to the corner of the room where his bed had been. But no evidence was found in the room.

Flores maintains his innocence. He has never been criminally charged, although the Smarts filed a still-unresolved wrongful-death civil suit against him in November 1996.

He has remained the only “person of interest” in the case through four presidential administrations and the dawn of a new millennium.

And on Wednesday, nearly a quarter-century after Kristin disappeared, investigators and the FBI served search warrants in San Luis Obispo County, Washington state and San Pedro, where Flores now lives. Flores’ mother’s home in San Luis Obispo County was among the other locations searched.

Sheriff’s officials said the warrants remain sealed. But multiple sources told Times reporters that the warrants are part of an effort to gather physical evidence, including DNA, that may reveal what happened to Kristin.

[Read the story: “Search warrants served in unsolved killing of Kristin Smart, who vanished in 1996 from Cal Poly” in the Los Angeles Times]

The warrants come after investigators recently found that two trucks connected to Flores’ family at the time Smart went missing were found by investigators in another state. A true-crime podcast about Kristin’s disappearance has also helped bring renewed attention to the case.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

The Senate acquitted President Trump of abusing the power of his office and obstructing Congress’ investigation into his conduct, ending the third presidential impeachment trial in American history. Californians — including lead House impeachment manager Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) — played an outsize role throughout the impeachment inquiry and trial.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the Republican Party’s presidential candidate eight years ago, was the only GOP lawmaker to join Democrats in voting to convict the president — on one of the articles of impeachment — for what he called “an appalling abuse of public trust.” It made for a dramatic conclusion to what both parties had expected to be a purely party-line vote. Los Angeles Times

Across much of California, fossil fuel companies are leaving thousands of oil and gas wells unplugged and idle, threatening the health of people living nearby and potentially handing taxpayers a multi-billion-dollar cleanup bill. From Kern County to Los Angeles, companies haven’t set aside anywhere near enough money to make these drilling sites safe for future generations, according to a months-long data analysis and investigation by the Los Angeles Times and the Center for Public Integrity. Los Angeles Times

L.A. STORIES

Kirk Douglas is dead at 103. The “Spartacus” star was known for helping to end the Hollywood blacklist. Douglas also played a major role in supporting one of Hollywood’s oldest charities and donating money for patients with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Los Angeles Times

Kirk Douglas
Kirk Douglas stars as an unscrupulous New York reporter milking the story of a mining accident in New Mexico in the 1951 classic “Ace in the Hole.”
(Paramount)

Eleven excellent kid-friendly restaurants in Los Angeles: Times restaurant critic Patricia Escárcega writes that when she became a parent last summer, “the dining universe effectively split into two general categories: places where I could take my child, and everywhere else.” Los Angeles Times

Did you know you can hike from Pacific Palisades to Malibu on a single dirt trail through the Santa Monica Mountains? The Backbone Trail has been decades in the making. And now, you can camp on it. Los Angeles Times

For 75 years, Dicker and Dicker of Beverly Hills styled itself as the apex of Hollywood glamour. Now its last furs are on sale. Los Angeles Times

As L.A. traffic deaths stay high, officials plead with drivers to stop texting. I am also pleading with you. Please, please stop texting while driving. Los Angeles Times

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IMMIGRATION AND THE BORDER

At least 138 people deported to El Salvador from the U.S. in recent years were subsequently killed, according to a new report from the group Human Rights Watch. The report comes as the Trump administration makes it harder for Central Americans to seek refuge in the U.S. Los Angeles Times

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Gov. Gavin Newsom has granted a posthumous pardon to civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. In an effort to rectify decades of prosecutions targeting LGBTQ Californians, Newsom announced a new clemency initiative to pardon people prosecuted under discriminatory laws. Los Angeles Times

San Francisco Mayor London Breed wants to take the battle for housing to voters, amping up her fight with the Board of Supervisors. San Francisco Chronicle

After a series of sweeping expansions to expand access to voting in recent years, a California lawmaker is pushing to require voters to cast a ballot in future elections. The proposal, introduced in the state Assembly on Tuesday, would be unprecedented and probably challenged in court should it ultimately become law. Los Angeles Times

CRIME AND COURTS

The accuser in Harvey Weinstein’s L.A. case testified against him in New York. Lauren Young, a Pennsylvania native who was 22 at the time of the alleged 2013 attack, is the last of six women to testify against Weinstein in Manhattan, where the fallen Hollywood mogul faces five counts of sexual assault and life in prison if convicted. Los Angeles Times

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Two jets carrying about 350 Americans have arrived in California at Travis Air Force Base from the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China. One of the aircraft refueled at the Northern California base before heading to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar near San Diego. Miramar and Travis are two of the four U.S. facilities the Department of Defense tapped to house quarantined Americans. Los Angeles Times

Coal plants are closing across the West. But a handful of western utilities continue to operate coal plants with no plans to decommission them, defying economic and political headwinds. Los Angeles Times

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Central California is the next frontier for Silicon Valley tech buses. “When tech companies first introduced private shuttles for their employees more than a decade ago, they served the affluent neighborhoods in San Francisco and the Peninsula. Now the buses reach as far as the almond orchards of Salida and the garlic fields of Gilroy.” Protocol

A prominent Bay Area megachurch pastor is under fire for not reporting a volunteer’s declared attraction to minors. Menlo Church pastor John Ortberg was placed on leave after his son, author Danny Lavery, informed church leaders of the situation. Mercury News

There will be no “Avocado Toast Street” in downtown Berkeley. The city has narrowed down potential monikers for a reconfigured two-block portion of Shattuck Avenue to a short list of 10 possible names, none of which are food items. Other rejected suggestions from the public include “Antifa Alley,” “Desolation Row,” “Nancy Pelosi Way” and “This City is a Nightmware” [sic]. Berkeleyside

A growing number of wine region workers are leaving vineyard jobs for the higher pay and better working conditions many cannabis growers offer. “The result is increasing tensions between these relative newcomers and the state’s long-established wine producers — also adding pressure to an ongoing labor shortage that shows no sign of easing anytime soon.” Foothills Sun-Gazette

The struggle for an accurate census count in rural and unincorporated Central Valley communities: Getting an accurate count of the thousands of families living without formal addresses or precariously piled under one roof is a challenge, and an undercount would rob rural communities of much-needed funds. Visalia Times-Delta

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: sunny, 69. San Diego: sunny, 65. San Francisco: sunny, 61. San Jose: sunny, 66. Sacramento: sunny, 62. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Carol Stevens:

The Helms Bakery truck that would visit our neighborhood at least once a week, the familiar whistle from the Helms Bakery driver alerting all of his presence. Once a crowd had gathered, the driver would pull out the long drawers of bakery goods from the back of his truck, and we would clamor around hoping to get the first choice. Ah, so much fun for a dime just to purchase that fluffy glazed donut.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


Newsletter
The stories shaping California

Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
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