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The long, twisted, frustrating road to an arrest in the disappearance of Kristin Smart

L.A. County sheriff’s deputies search a home.
Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies search the home of Paul Flores in February 2020 in connection with the disappearance of Kristin Smart.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The disappearance of Kristin Smart is one of California’s most enduring mysteries.

For much of the time since she vanished while walking to her dorm at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1996, authorities have identified fellow student Paul Flores as the prime suspect in the case.

But despite numerous investigations, searches and legal procedures, there has not be an arrest in the case. Until Tuesday, when Flores and his father were arrested.

Paul Flores is charged in the 1996 disappearance of Kristin Smart, with prosecutors alleging he killed the 19-year-old as he raped or tried to rape her.

Here is a timeline of the case:

May 1996

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Smart, then 19, of Stockton, disappeared on Memorial Day weekend.

About 8:30 p.m. on May 24, she and three companions left their dorms, a staggered row of brick and concrete buildings set against a steep incline known as Poly Hill.

They grabbed a ride in a truck to a party at an unofficial fraternity house near campus. Her friends did not want to go to the party, so they dropped Smart off a couple of blocks away.

Kristin Smart disappeared 24 years ago.
Kristin Smart disappeared 24 years ago.
(Tribune News Service)

Tim Davis, a senior who helped stage the party, told investigators he was shooing away the last stragglers about 2 a.m. when he spotted a tall girl later identified as Smart sprawled on a lawn next door, apparently passed out. He roused her. She was in no condition to walk home alone.

Davis and Cheryl Anderson were going to walk her home when Flores, a 19-year-old from the nearby town of Arroyo Grande, volunteered to help. Smart was last seen walking home with him, authorities said.

Busloads of volunteers, horses and ground-penetrating radar were called in for a search after Smart went missing.

Paul Flores, long described as a ‘prime suspect,’ was taken into custody by San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s officials

June 1996

San Luis Obispo County district attorney’s officials interviewed Flores. As investigators pressed him, he pulled his arms into his T-shirt, bent over at the waist in his chair and lifted his feet off the floor, as if moving toward a fetal position, records show.

“If you are so smart,” he demanded, “then tell me where the body is.”

Later, Flores invoked his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination before a grand jury and during a civil deposition.

The arrest comes nearly 25 years after Smart vanished while walking back to her dorm at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

May 2002

Smart was declared legally dead. But her family vowed to get justice for her.

April 2004

Smart’s family sought donations to keep two billboards up beside U.S. 101 to raise awareness of her case.

“We want to keep Kristin’s memory alive,” her mother, Denise Smart, said at the time. “Billboards are the only way we can remind people that she’s still missing after eight years. It’s the only gift we can give to her to make sure she’s not forgotten.”

One warm Friday night in late spring 10 years ago, Kristin Denise Smart and three other young women started walking from their dorms at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

August 2008

Her family continued to press for a resolution of her case.

“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.”

September 2016

FBI agents and sheriff’s deputies from San Luis Obispo County spent five days digging up three locations on the hillside where Smart was last seen alive. The dig uncovered remains, but they were believed to be of animals and not related to the case.

Authorities said they picked the locations based on a lead they had developed and because three FBI dogs trained to detect human decomposition “alerted” in those areas.

February 2021

Flores was arrested on suspicion of being a felon in possession of a firearm, based on information developed when his home was searched.

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student Kristin Smart vanished in 1996. Investigators are searching the property of the father of suspect Paul Flores with cadaver dogs and radar.

March 2021

Detectives with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department served a search warrant at the Arroyo Grande home of Ruben Flores, the father of Paul Flores.

April 2021

Flores was taken into custody by San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s officials. In the past, Flores denied any wrongdoing.

Flores’ father also was arrested Tuesday morning at his home in Arroyo Grande. The 80-year-old was booked into the San Luis Obispo County Jail on suspicion of being an accessory after the fact, jail records show.

Armed with a warrant, investigators were searching Ruben Flores’ home and garage, according to television news reports.


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