Paul Flores sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for murder of Kristin Smart

Paul Flores looks on at the second day of his preliminary hearing Tuesday Aug. 3, 2021. He was taken into custody in San Pedro and booked into San Luis Obispo County Jail on suspicion of the murder of Cal Poly student Kristin Smart. (David Middlecamp/The Tribune (of San Luis Obispo) via AP, Pool)
Paul Flores, seen in court in 2021, was sentenced Friday to 25 years to life in prison. (David Middlecamp / Pool Photo)
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For the record:
4:30 p.m. March 10, 2023: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Paul Flores was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, which means he could eventually be paroled.

Paul Flores was sentenced Friday to 25 years to life in prison for the murder of fellow Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student Kristin Smart, who disappeared on Memorial Day weekend more than 25 years ago and whose body was never found.

After hearing from Smart's loved ones, Monterey County Judge Jennifer O'Keefe sentenced Flores, 46, for her 1996 murder. Prosecutors believe he raped or attempted to rape Smart in his dorm before killing her and hiding her body.

O'Keefe said Paul Flores acted out of a purpose of sexual gratification and sexual compulsion. She said his predatory behavior spanned his adult life, a reference to trial testimony by two Los Angeles-area women who said they had been drugged and sexually assaulted by Flores in the last ten years.

Stan Smart, Kristin's father, described the devastating effect on her family.

“This is a parent’s worst nightmare — the disappearance and death of their child,” he said. “We shared her hopes, her dreams, her aspirations as she became a beautiful young adult, and now she will never be able to have a full life.”

Matthew Smart, Kristin's brother, said there was no joy from the sentencing and that they always knew it was Flores.

O'Keefe delivered the sentence after rejecting a motion from Robert Sanger, Flores' defense attorney, for a new trial because the prosecutor had erred during his closing argument by misstating the standard for reasonable doubt.

Prosecutor Christopher Peuvrelle declared Flores a "true psychopath."

“After nearly 27 years of unspeakable anguish, the Smart family has finally seen their daughter’s killer sentenced," he said afterward in a statement. "Their strength and determination serve as an inspiration to us all."

Smart was 19 when she vanished on May 25, 1996, when she was last seen walking toward the college dormitories with Flores after a fraternity party. Her disappearance sparked a massive manhunt of the area that included helicopters, radar, cadaver dogs, horses and busloads of volunteers.

Though her body was never found, she was legally declared dead in 2002.

From the start, investigators zeroed in on Flores. Like Smart, he was 19 and in his freshman year. Classmates described him as awkward and unpopular; five months before Smart disappeared, a female student called the police and reported that Flores, apparently drunk, had climbed onto her balcony and refused to leave.

In interviews, Flores told investigators he had walked Smart to her dormitory and then returned to his room. He explained a black eye first by saying he had been elbowed in a pickup basketball game, then admitted he had lied and said he’d hit himself while working on a truck at his father’s home.

Without a body, investigators were repeatedly frustrated in their investigation.

Then, in April 2021, Flores was finally arrested at his San Pedro home for Smart's murder, which investigators said was the result of a combination of physical evidence seized in recent years and statements from previously uninterviewed witnesses. His father, Ruben Flores, 81, was also arrested and was accused of helping his son dispose of Smart’s remains.

After a 12-week trial, a Monterey County jury convicted Paul Flores of murder in October. A separate judge acquitted his father of being an accessory to the crime.

Smart's disappearance and the subsequent murder investigation haunted the college town for years and left an indelible mark on San Luis Obispo. Billboard ads appealed for evidence to convict her killer. Her disappearance was also the subject of a true crime podcast.

Because of all the attention, a judge ordered that the trial be moved to Monterey County to ensure fair legal proceedings.

During the trial, San Luis Obispo County Deputy Dist. Atty. Peuvrelle alleged that Flores raped or attempted to rape — and eventually killed — Smart before hiding her remains under his father's Arroyo Grande house deck. Then, Peuvrelle said, a neighbor reported strange activity with a trailer in the yard in 2020. The prosecutor argued that father and son moved Smart's remains as investigators made new inquiries about the property.

A lawyer in a courtroom
Robert Sanger, Paul Flores' defense attorney, concludes his case during closing arguments in Flores' murder trial on Oct. 5 in Monterey County Superior Court in Salinas. (Laura Dickinson / San Luis Obispo Tribune)

Peuvrelle portrayed Paul Flores as a predator who, even after becoming the focus of the Smart investigation, drugged and raped women he lured to his Los Angeles-area home.

Sanger, Flores' defense attorney, said jurors had been told "a bunch of conspiracy theories not backed up by facts." Prosecutors, he argued, had no forensic evidence, including DNA or blood, connecting Flores to any crime.

Judge Jennifer O'Keefe
Judge Jennifer O'Keefe presides over the trial in Monterey County Superior Court. (Daniel Dreifuss / Monterey County Weekly)

Peuvrelle said during the trial that Flores, a fellow Cal Poly student, had “hunted” Smart for months, noting witness testimony that he had frequently appeared where she was, including at her dormitory.

According to witness testimony, Smart arrived at a Crandall Street house party about 10:30 p.m. Others who were there said she never smelled of alcohol but was seen with one drink shortly before midnight after hanging out with Flores. Afterward, she passed out on a lawn for two hours. Peuvrelle alleged that her behavior was consistent with someone drugging her.

As Smart and two other students began to leave, Flores appeared out of the darkness to help her walk home, witnesses testified. Smart needed help to get up a hill, and once in sight of the dormitories, prosecutors say, Flores promised to get her home. He later insisted he left her within sight of her dorm.

Peuvrelle said the evidence showed that Flores took Smart back to his dorm room. Four cadaver dogs would eventually key in on his room because of the "smell of death on his mattress," the prosecutor told jurors.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.