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Fourteen years ago, police in Redondo Beach were called to a hospital where a woman had come after waking up in a stranger's bed, naked and with no memory of what had happened. She believed she had been raped.
An examination confirmed she’d had sex with a man. Police uploaded his DNA profile to a law enforcement database and, a few years later, it matched to a name: Paul Ruben Flores.
Redondo detectives opened a rape investigation into Flores. Although he was not charged in the case, the DNA hit sounded alarms 200 miles north in San Luis Obispo, where Flores was the prime suspect in the enduring mystery of Kristin Smart's disappearance and presumed death.
Smart, a 19-year-old freshman at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, had vanished on Memorial Day weekend in 1996. She was last seen walking with Flores, a classmate, but without sufficient evidence tying him to the crime, he remained free.
For the next quarter of a century, Flores was dogged by his ties to the Smart case. He moved to Los Angeles County's South Bay, but detectives continued to pursue him, tapping his phones, seizing his computers and digging up his parents' yards in search of Smart's remains.
When Flores was charged with Smart's murder this month, prosecutors and police made clear the years that Flores spent in Southern California had bolstered their long-held suspicions that he had killed Smart, and helped them build a case against him.
What appeared on the surface to be a mundane life was in fact one marked by troubling encounters with police. The alleged rape in Redondo Beach, which has not previously been reported, was one of multiple cases in which Flores was suspected of sexually assaulting women. He is also a suspect in two more recent alleged sexual assaults being investigated by the Los Angeles Police Department, authorities say.
Flores, 44, has not been charged with any sex crimes stemming from his time in Southern California. He has pleaded not guilty to Smart's murder, which authorities allege he committed while attempting to rape her. Flores' attorney said in court this week he “denies every allegation." Flores' 80-year-old father, who is charged with being an accessory to murder, has also pleaded not guilty. He is accused of helping his son hide Smart's body, which has never been found.
Neighbors and others who encountered Flores during the 20 years he lived in San Pedro and Lawndale, a small city near Los Angeles International Airport, described him as a solitary man who drank heavily and acted erratically.
A few months after moving into her home in San Pedro, Elena Palleschi was putting up a fence when Flores came over and offered to help. After helping her hoist a few two-by-fours into place, Flores invited her over for a glass of red wine, she said.
She was ready with her answer. Before she had moved in, Palleschi's landlady had said she believed she had an obligation to tell her that the man who lived in the small green house next door with aging cars parked outside was a suspect in a killing.
“I don’t drink red wine,” Palleschi told Flores.
Palleschi said she came to know Flores as quick-tempered and prone to fits of anger over parking and his dogs. He accused neighbors of blocking his driveway with their cars, and Palleschi said he once banged on her door at night, accusing her of spraying his dogs with a hose as she watered her garden.
Frank Romero, who has lived next to Flores since 2017, said Flores shared few details of his life and never brought up Smart, despite his ties to her case being an open secret among neighbors. Fliers would periodically appear on light poles on Flores' street that identified him as a person of interest in her disappearance — their source unknown.
Romero recalled that each morning Flores would lift the hood of his cream-colored 1960 Chevrolet Bel Air, fiddle with the engine until it roared to life, and “take off real loud." He never asked Flores where he was going, although Flores once told the police he worked as a mover for a company in Willowbrook, according to an arrest report.
The only time Flores seemed in any mood to socialize, Romero said, was when he was drunk. He’d come uninvited to Romero’s home, smelling of beer, and hit on Romero’s female friends, he said.
“You could tell when he was drinking,” he said. “He’d get loud, belligerent. Obnoxious.”
His clumsy attempts at flirting left the women uncomfortable, Romero said. “He was pushy. He’d grab their hand, kiss it, keep repeating himself: ‘Oh, you’re so lovely,’” Romero said.
In Lawndale, where Flores lived in a small back house before moving to San Pedro, neighbors recalled similar behavior. Flores was awkward, a heavy drinker who didn’t seem to understand or respect boundaries, said one woman, who asked not to be identified because Flores’ relatives still live at the property.
On a few occasions, he tried to scale a wall between their homes in an attempt to socialize with her family without being asked, she recalled.
Flores frequented bars on Artesia Boulevard about a mile from his home, according to the neighbor, who said she worked as a bartender at one of them. She said she believed Flores kept to bars close to his home because he had lost his license and only walked or rode a bicycle for several years. Police records show Flores has been convicted of driving with a suspended or revoked license.
Flores' drinking led to run-ins with police. His record includes at least five convictions — one of them a felony — for driving drunk in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, as well as a conviction for being drunk in public, according to court records.
And in 1998, two years after Smart disappeared, Flores was arrested by the Huntington Beach police on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon other than a firearm, according to a criminal history report filed in court. He wasn’t prosecuted for lack of evidence, the report says.
In a letter to a judge handling one of his drunk driving cases, a counselor at a court-ordered alcohol program described Flores as an admitted alcoholic whose symptoms include “loss of control over intake” once he starts drinking. Judges have repeatedly ordered Flores to enroll in self-help courses and attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as a condition of avoiding jail, according to records filed in a drunk driving case and another in which Flores was convicted of public intoxication.
Flores avoided criminal charges for sexual assault, despite being suspected of assaulting multiple women.
In a probation report inadvertently made public and obtained by the San Luis Obispo Tribune, a deputy district attorney wrote that dozens of women have described “sexual assaults and predatory behavior that document [Flores’] twenty-five years as a serial rapist.”
That report did not provide details of the alleged assaults, but since his move from California's Central Coast to the Los Angeles area, Flores has been investigated in at least three alleged sexual assaults — the Redondo Beach case and the two in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Police Det. Daniel Aguirre said Flores is a suspect in two attacks being investigated by the LAPD that occurred in the San Pedro area between 2013 and 2017. County prosecutors have not yet decided whether to file charges against Flores, and detectives want to speak with any other potential victims of Flores, Aguirre said.
In the Redondo Beach rape investigation, a police officer's crime report and a memo written by a county prosecutor that were reviewed by The Times describe the facts of the case and the decision not to bring charges against Flores.
One January night in 2007, the woman met some friends at BAC Street Lounge. She told police later that she remembered drinking two vodka cocktails, a shot and some beer. The last thing she could recall was sitting on a bar stool.
She awoke in a stranger’s bed, naked and wrapped in a blanket. She had no memory of meeting the man beside her or having sex with him, she told police. The man pointed her in the direction of Artesia Boulevard and she walked home, still feeling intoxicated.
In the police report, the officer noted the woman said she had consumed similar amounts of alcohol on other nights and had not become so incapacitated. "She strongly believes that she ingested an unknown substance to cause her to feel the way she did," the officer wrote.
The medical exam at a hospital confirmed she'd had sex, although it showed “no obvious indication of force or assaultive behavior,” according to the prosecutor's memo. Her urine had no trace of date rape drugs, the document says.
Four years later, the DNA sample collected from the woman's body was identified as belonging to Flores, Redondo Beach Police Lt. Fabian Saucedo said. Questioned by the police, Flores said he had no “particular recollection” of the woman or the incident, according to the prosecutor's memo. “He stated it was possible he had sex with her since he has had sex with many girls," the document says.
Investigators asked the woman to pick her assailant from a lineup. She wasn’t able to identify Flores as the perpetrator, Saucedo said.
When Redondo Beach police spoke with a bartender at the lounge, she told them she had already been interviewed by police from San Luis Obispo, who “were investigating a 1996 case in which the suspect was the last known person seen with a student from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo,” according to the memo.
The bartender told the San Luis Obispo officers that she didn’t know much about Flores, whom she described as a “sometimes customer.” She didn’t remember seeing Flores leave with the woman in the 2007 case, and she couldn’t recall him doing anything suspicious that night, the memo says.
Another customer had confided in the bartender that she’d had a “similar experience” with Flores, but had never reported it to the police and had “no desire to do so now," the prosecutor wrote.
Los Angeles County prosecutors chose not to charge Flores with rape. “The DNA hit only proves that there was some type of sexual contact,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Christi Frey wrote in the memo, “but not what the nature of that contact was.” While Flores very well may have “taken advantage” of the woman’s drunken state, it couldn’t be proved beyond a doubt that she didn’t go to his apartment and have sex willingly, Frey concluded.
The assault allegations in Southern California could figure into the Smart case. Because Flores is accused of killing Smart during the commission of a rape, prosecutors may be allowed to raise instances of other, uncharged sexual misconduct to show his propensity for sexual assaults.
If Flores' case goes to trial and San Luis Obispo prosecutors present testimony that Flores has preyed on women in the years after Smart disappeared, as they have said in court papers that they intend to do, it would broaden the scope of the trial significantly.
Along with aging witnesses trying to recall memories from 25 years ago, others who have allegedly crossed paths with Flores more recently could be called to testify.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.