Exclusive: Kristin Smart’s family ‘beyond grateful’ after guilty verdict in murder case
Twenty-seven years ago, Denise Smart was at a swim meet.
It was 1996, and her two youngest children, Matt and Lindsey, were competing in an annual Memorial Day weekend competition in Stockton. It was the first her oldest daughter, Kristin, wasn’t there for.
Kristin was away at college — Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo — finishing up her freshman year.
That day, Denise received the phone call no parent can imagine: Her daughter was missing.
Cal Poly officials told Denise that Kristin likely went camping for the weekend, but a motherly instinct told her that wasn’t the case.
So she called Kristin’s roommates, who said Kristin had left behind her backpack, ID and other essential belongings.
“It was just immediately off-kilter,” Denise recalled with goosebumps forming on her arms. “I was immediately concerned.”
Upon receiving the news, Denise’s husband Stan drove at once to San Luis Obispo. He hoped Kristin would have returned to Cal Poly by the time he arrived there. He thought he would just have to give his daughter a lecture.
But that moment never happened, and neither Stan nor Denise could predict the unending nightmare that would unfold from that day.
Paul Flores, who was also a freshman at Cal Poly at the time, quickly became a person of interest in the case, then the de-facto sole suspect for nearly three decades. But a botched initial investigation led to his freedom for 25 years, until he was finally arrested and charged with Kristin’s murder. His father, Ruben Flores, was also arrested that day, accused of helping his son conceal the crime.
Two years later in October, a Monterey County jury convicted Paul Flores for the first-degree murder of Kristin Smart. He is currently serving a 25 years to life sentence in North Kern State Prison. His father, who was acquitted by a separate jury, remains free.
Despite that resolution, the 27th anniversary of their daughter’s disappearance isn’t a time for celebration, Stan and Denise said.
“This year, at 27 years, we are beyond grateful that he is in prison,” Denise said. “But we would be ecstatic at this point if we were able to lay her to rest.”
On Wednesday, with Paul Flores’ conviction and sentencing beginning to recede, Stan and Denise sat down with The Tribune at their Stockton home, to talk about their daughter’s life, the investigation and trial, and where they go from here.
Who was Kristin Smart?
Kristin was so much more than a missing girl, her parents told the Tribune.
If Kristin were still alive today, Denise said, she would walk in the room, crack a joke and sit on her dad’s lap — even as an adult.
She and Stan had an irreplaceable friendship, they said.
When Kristin was a teenager, her father got a job as a high school principal in Napa County, so Kristin transferred to his school, commuting with him each day.
She was also close with her two younger siblings, Lindsey and Matt.
They had begun swimming at 5 and 7 years old, when Kristin was 9. At one meet, Kristin jumped into the pool, and soon, she took up the sport as well.
Though her two siblings were more naturally gifted, Denise said, Kristin’s perseverance and determination were unmatched.
Within one summer, she began receiving medals and ribbons, and was even named most improved swimmer of the year.
Still, she remained her siblings’ biggest cheerleader.
Each Halloween, Kristin would escort them and the other neighborhood kids to trick or treat. She babysat neighbor Denise Pearce’s kids and was a role model to them.
She became the favorite babysitter of the neighborhood, Pearce said, because she always planned fun activities to do with the kids.
Kristin was also determined to have a life of adventure, her mother said.
Denise Smart recalled a time when Kristin found a book at Barnes and Noble about how to get hired overseas as a college student. Kristin didn’t have the money to buy the book, so she wrote down some information then made some calls.
She was a senior in high school at the time.
Later, Kristin convinced a Hawaiian surf camp to hire her despite not meeting the employment requirements, her mother said, a testament to her determination.
Pearce remembers Kristin’s excitement for college, and even helped her pick out her first-day outfit: a denim jumper and white blouse.
Cal Poly issues first public apology to Smart family
Kristin was eager to attend Cal Poly, her parents recalled, but she stayed in close touch with her family, and Sunday phone calls became a tradition once she moved away.
Because Memorial Day weekend 1996 was so busy with the swim meet, Denise Smart said she didn’t realized Kristin hadn’t called that Sunday.
Then the call from Cal Poly came.
Denise said representatives from the university were “flippant” when they told her Kristin wasn’t accounted for, which was an immediate cause for concern.
Denise Pearce, Denise Smart’s best friend and fellow swim mom, was with her when she received the news at the swim meet. Pearce recalled her own travels in college and tried to reassure Denise Smart that Kristin was probably doing the same.
“I thought she still is out there somewhere,” Pearce told The Tribune. “Never in a million years would I think that she would’ve been murdered. That just wasn’t in my reality.”
But as the days passed, the alarm bells sounded louder.
Pearce stayed with Denise while Stan drove to San Luis Obispo with his nephew. The first month was excruciatingly long, Denise and Stan recalled.
Denise called every law enforcement agency they could to recruit help to find their daughter, while Stan organized search parties to look for Kristin in sewers and alleyways across San Luis Obispo County.
The Smarts said Cal Poly, law enforcement and the news media at the time blamed their daughter for disappearing.
Kristin was drunk, they said. She went to a party. She was wearing shorts. Was she promiscuous? She was asking for it.
But most witnesses didn’t see Kristin actually drink, her parents recalled, and the possibility that she could have been drugged was never explored. Kristin’s friends told her parents that she was last seen with Paul Flores, whose nickname was “Chester the Molester,” but the university didn’t secure Flores’ dorm room as a crime scene.
Instead, Paul Flores left campus for summer break, and the room was cleaned.
“There seemed to be no value placed on our daughter’s life,” Denise Smart said.
In a phone interview with The Tribune for this story, President Jeffrey Armstrong apologized on behalf of Cal Poly for the way the university mishandled the case in the 1990s. It’s the first public apology the university has issued.
“I can’t imagine the pain Kristin’s family has felt and still feels. What they’ve been through is just unbelievably heartbreaking,” Armstrong said. “We recognize, even though I wasn’t here, that Cal Poly could have done things differently. There were things that we do differently now. There are things that should have been done differently. And for that, I’m sorry.”
‘Just disgusting’: Kristin Smart’s parents reflect on initial investigation
About a month after Kristin’s disappearance, Cal Poly handed the investigation to the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office. That’s when Paul Flores’ dorm room was searched by cadaver dogs.
The dogs alerted to the scent of human remains despite the room being cleaned, but there wasn’t enough forensic evidence to pursue an arrest.
That July, the Sheriff’s Office also searched Ruben Flores’ Arroyo Grande home, but they didn’t bring cadaver dogs.
“If they brought dogs there, we wouldn’t even know you,” Denise told The Tribune.
It wasn’t until March 2021 that the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office found what they believe was a dug-up grave underneath Ruben Flores’ deck. Soil staining consistent with a decomposing human body tested positive for human blood, and fibers were found that matched the colors of Kristin’s clothing the night she disappeared.
It’s believed that the Flores family moved Kristin’s body from underneath the deck in February 2020, days after the FBI searched the home.
Looking back, the Smarts believe the early missteps in the case were responsible for the loss of crucial evidence that could have convicted Paul Flores sooner and led to the recovery of Kristin’s body.
Adding to their frustration, Denise Smart said the efforts by former sheriffs Ed Williams and Pat Hedges felt more like they were following a routine than trying to solve the case.
Williams told the Tribune in 1997 that the only way the case would be solved is if Paul Flores talked, which the Smarts said gave Flores a blueprint on how to remain free. Hedges also declined help from outside agencies, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Denise said.
Also in 1997, Denise said she received a phone call from then-District Attorney Barry LaBarbera. He told her that Paul Flores’ lawyer, Melvin De La Motte, said his client would plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter in exchange for Kristin’s body.
To her, this meant Paul Flores killed Kristin and knew where she was.
“It’s just disgusting,” Denise Smart said.
This past October, however, De La Motte denied negotiating a plea bargain that would suggest Paul Flores’ guilt, and he told The Tribune he only ever asked if the Smart family would be open to an involuntary manslaughter plea.
After that, for more than a decade, the family’s discontent with the Sheriff’s Office only grew.
Denise said she just wanted her missing daughter to be treated like a real person rather than a black-and-white face in the newspaper.
“You get so frustrated,” Denise said. “There’s no vocabulary for it. There are no words.”
At one point, Denise said, she produced a video of childhood memories of Kristin and sent it to former Sheriff Williams’ Office — to no response. She also paid for billboards and made local and national TV appearances.
Living children ‘exceptional survivors,’ mother says
The 25 years between their daughter’s disappearance and her killer’s arrest were filled with unresolved pain for the Smarts, to say the least.
“It’s basically like tearing a piece of your heart out,” Denise Smart said. “It’s not complete without her in it.”
Denise and Stan were distraught, but they still had two children to raise. Lindsey, their youngest, was about to graduate middle school when her sister disappeared, and Matt was in his third year of high school.
She held onto advice someone gave her during a meeting with then-state Sen. Mike Thompson told her in the first year of Kristin’s disappearance: “He’s already taken your daughter’s life. Don’t let him take your family. Don’t let him take your marriage. Don’t let him take the life of your children.”
At the time, that advice angered Denise — she believed her daughter was still alive. But as the years passed, it became a sort of mantra that kept her going.
The parents decided to shelter their children from the grim details of their sister’s disappearance.
“Sharing that with them would have been even more depressing,” Denise said.
Stan and Denise Smarts’ lives became about finding a balance between finding Kristin and continuing with their lives. If they dwelled on the bad, Denise said, they would just get older with nothing to live for.
“You do gain strength from your family, and you gain strength from your friends,” Denise said. “It’s something you have to do together.”
All Stan and Denise Smart wanted for their two living children was for them to thrive, and the parents are proud to say their children did just that. Both maintained high grades, pursued successful careers and now have families of their own while still grieving the loss of their older sister.
“Our two children were exceptional survivors living through a living nightmare,” Denise said.
New SLO County sheriff offers hope to family
It wasn’t until Ian Parkinson was elected as sheriff in 2010, the Smarts said, that a shift finally occurred.
Parkinson had campaigned on a vow to solve Kristin’s case, and he met with the family before he was elected. He was different than his two predecessors, the Smarts said.
“Ian made it sound like he understood the value that this family was missing a human being,” Denise said. “We didn’t have any of that from either of the other sheriffs. It was a job for them that they wanted to check off.”
Parkinson was the first sheriff to have open communication with the Smart family. He gave them his personal cell phone number, always answered emails and always made sure to keep them in the loop, even if he couldn’t share specific details.
Nevertheless, progress in the case remained sporadic, with starts, stops and stalls continuing for nearly the first eight years of Parkinson’s tenure.
Then, Det. Clint Cole was assigned the case in 2019, the year that is regarded as a major turning point.
The Smarts felt Cole also understood the value of Kristin’s life, and they appreciated how he prioritized finding new information rather than rehashing what was already known.
Around the same time, another a fortuitous meeting occurred during Denise’s visit here on Kristin’s birthday that year, Feb. 22.
Denise was in her car at Kristin’s Point of Hope, a memorial at Dinosaur Caves Park in Shell Beach, when she saw a bearded man talking to a friend. She waited — it was cold outside — to see if the man would leave, but the conversation looked so engaging she figured he must know her friend, too.
He didn’t, but he did know a lot about Kristin’s case.
Denise learned the man’s name — Chris Lambert — and invited him to sing songs at a nearby bench with the Jam Fam, a local musical group.
“He never said a word that he was a musician. He didn’t sing. I don’t know if he even opened his mouth,” Denise said. “But he stood there with us.”
She then invited Lambert to dinner, and to her surprise, he said yes.
Toward the end of the meal, Lambert mentioned the podcast he had been researching. He asked Denise Smart for permission to move forward, and though she wasn’t sure what it exactly entailed, she said yes.
“I instantly liked him and trusted him,” she said.
The next week, Lambert visited her and Stan at their home in Stockton. He was still shy and slow to warm up, she said, but they eventually talked about the case. It’s the conversation in the first episode of his podcast, which was released on Sept. 30, 2019.
Within a couple of days, “Your Own Backyard” had reached 70,000 listeners.
“I was thunderstruck,” Denise said.
People from all over the country began to reach out with tips, and Lambert would refer them to law enforcement. This brought the Smart family the most hope they’d had in a while.
Someone had to have an answer.
Family reflects on the trial
As the investigation ramped up, the Smarts were repeatedly told that Paul and Ruben Flores would soon be arrested. But they’d been on this roller coaster for 25 years, they said, and they knew to not let their hopes up too high.
They didn’t even believe the pair had been taken into custody until they saw the photos online, and they were ecstatic. This was the closest they’d been to justice for their daughter in 25 years, and they hoped it could end with finding her body.
What they didn’t know was that the ensuing legal process would take more than two years.
At times, it was difficult to sit in the courtroom, they said. They were under a strict gag order, so they couldn’t defend Kristin when the defense attacked her character.
Finally, after three months of testimony, they got word the juries had reached their verdicts on Oct. 18.
At 1:30 p.m. that Tuesday afternoon, the Smart family entered the courtroom for the reading of Paul Flores’ verdict. They sat down on a wooden bench. They held hands. And they listened.
The court reporter read the verdict: Guilty.
“It was such an extraordinary relief,” Denise said. “Your whole body just melted.”
Stan smiled. Denise and Lindsey cried.
Then Ruben Flores’ verdict came: Not guilty.
It had to have been an error, Denise said she thought at the time. But she remembered Ruben Flores’ jury didn’t see the videotape of the law enforcement interview with Paul Flores.
It was hard news to hear, the Smarts said, because they were — and still are — certain that Ruben Flores helped his son hide their daughter.
But they are comforted that at least their daughter’s killer is being held accountable for his crimes.
How Smarts have turned their loss into a new law
After the verdicts, waiting five months for Kristin’s killer to be sentenced felt like another gut punch, the Smarts said. They had already waited too long for some semblance of justice, only to have to wait more.
Stan Smart said he was happy the judge told Paul Flores he was a “cancer to society” — he hadn’t expected her to be so direct.
But he doesn’t believe the sentence of 25 years to life — the maximum allowed for first degree murder without enhancements like using a firearm — is sufficient.
“The sentence is pretty minimal for taking a person’s life and having a whole lifetime to do whatever you want,” he said.
So Stan and Denise Smart are working to change California law — again.
In 1998, they championed the Kristin Smart Safety Act, which requires universities and community colleges to have a written policy on how to navigate solving certain violent crimes with local law enforcement.
Now, they are looking to add a new sentencing enhancement in California’s penal code that would add years of incarceration for withholding the location of a body — something they believe could motivate Paul Flores to finally disclose where their daughter is.
“You want to try to prevent any other families from going through this nightmare. It shouldn’t have to be this way,” Denise Smart said. “No one should have to go through this.”
For now, the search for their daughter’s body continues, Stan and Denise said, and it will continue until she is found.