LOS ANGELES (AP) – The father of Kristin Smart, the Central Coast California student who disappeared from campus 26 years ago, says a murder conviction has not ended a “long, excruciating journey” to find the truth about his daughter.
“Without Kristin, there is no joy or happiness in this verdict,” Smart’s father, Stan Smart, said at a news conference after a jury on Tuesday found Paul Flores – the last man seen with Smart – guilty of first-degree murder.
Prosecutors alleged that Flores killed Smart, then 19, as he tried to rape her in his dorm room at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, where they were freshmen. His attorney argued that prosecutors used an outlandish conspiracy theory and “junk science” to charge him and his father, who is accused of covering up Smart’s body to cover up the crime.
Flores, who is 45, could face 25 years to life in prison when he is sentenced on Dec. 9. His attorney, Robert Sanger, declined to comment on Tuesday’s verdict.
A day earlier, a special jury acquitted Ruben Flores, 81, who prosecutors accused of burying Smart’s body under the deck of his home in the nearby community of Arroyo Grande for years, but later dug it up and moved it.
Her body was never found.
Both verdicts were announced on Tuesday.
“After 26 years, with today’s split verdict, we know our search for justice for Kristin will continue,” Smart’s father said. “This has been an excruciatingly long journey, with more downs than ups.”
However, he also thanked both juries for their diligence and said his faith in the justice system had been “restored”.
“Know that your spirit lives in each of us, everyday,” he said of his daughter. “Not a day goes by without you being missed, remembered, loved and celebrated.”
Smart disappeared from campus over Memorial Day weekend in 1996. The father and son were not arrested until 2021. Their lawyers suggested that someone else killed her or that she may still be alive, although Smart was legally declared dead in 2002.
San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson told reporters the search for Smart’s remains will continue.
“This case won’t be over until Kristin comes home, and we’ve made that commitment from the beginning,” he said. “We don’t breathe. We are not putting this aside.”
Paul Flores was seen with Smart on May 25, 1996. The defense said Flores was seen helping Smart to a dormitory after getting drunk at an off-campus party. Prosecutors suggested she may have been drugged and Flores took her to his room where he killed her during an attempted rape.
Paul Flores has long been considered a suspect in the murder. He had a black eye when investigators interviewed him. He told them he got it from playing basketball with friends, who denied his account, according to court records. He later changed his story and said he hit his head while working on his car.
During Paul Flores’ trial, the prosecution also told the jury that four cadaver dogs alerted to the “smell of death on his mattress,” but Sanger called that “junk science” and noted that there was no forensic evidence that Smart was in the room.
“This case has not been prosecuted all these years because there is no evidence,” Sanger said during closing arguments. “It’s sad that Kristin Smart is gone, and maybe she’s out on her own, but who knows?”
Investigators have conducted dozens of unsuccessful searches for Smart’s body over two decades. In the past two years, they turned their attention to the home of Ruben Flores.
Behind bars under the deck of his large home on a cul-de-sac, archaeologists working for the police in March 2021 found a coffin-sized soil disturbance and the presence of human blood, prosecutors said. The blood was too degraded to extract a DNA sample.
After Tuesday’s verdict, Ruben Flores maintained that both he and his son were innocent and said he felt bad that Smart’s family would never come to a resolution. He said it was about feelings, not facts.
“We don’t know what happened to their daughter,” he told reporters.
“They had searches and everything,” he said. “They come to my house and say she’s buried here, and it’s a surprise to me.”
“He should never have been charged,” said his attorney, Harold Mesick. “It would be nice if the community really respected the presumption of innocence. There is so much animosity towards this man and his family.”
The trial was held in Salinas, 110 miles (177 kilometers) north of San Luis Obispo. A judge agreed to transfer him after the defense argued it was unlikely the Floreses could get a fair trial with such notoriety in the town of about 47,000 people.