Kristin Smart, a freshman at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, disappeared on May 25, 1996. Paul Flores was a longtime person of interest

By Greg HanlonChristine Pelisek and KC Baker
April 14, 2021 09:37 AM
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kristin-smart
Kristin Smart
| Credit: Find Kristen Smart/Facebook

On the Friday of Memorial Day weekend in 1996, Kristin Smart — a California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, freshman — went missing after attending an off-campus party.

More than 20 years later, Smart, who when she vanished was an upbeat, athletic 19-year-old from Stockton, Calif., still hasn't been found.

But on Tuesday, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson announced the arrest of Paul Flores, Smart's former classmate and a longtime person of interest in the case, on suspicion of murder. Flores was the last known person to see her alive after volunteering to walk her home in her inebriated state from the party, police have said.

Parkinson said Flores' father, Ruben Flores, was arrested on suspicion of accessory to murder.

Here are five things to know about the case.

1. Smart's Body Still Has Not Been Found

Despite the fact that Flores is accused of murder, authorities have not located Smart's body. At Tuesday's press conference, Parkinson said finding her remains remains a top priority.

"Until we return Kristin to them [her family] it is not over," Parkinson said. "We are committed to them. We are not going to stop until Kristin is recovered."

Parkinson did not elaborate on what led to the charges against either suspect. He said that since 2011, the sheriff's office has served served more than 41 search warrants, did physical searches of many different locations, submitted more than 37 items for DNA testing, recovered 193 items of new physical evidence and conducted over 130 interviews.

"Throughout our investigation Paul Flores has remained a person of significant interest," he said. "As the case progressed he became a suspect and the prime suspect in the case."

Paul Flores
Paul Flores
| Credit: San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office
ruben Flores
Ruben Flores
| Credit: San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office

In February and then April of 2020, Flores was briefly detained but then released. Authorities said at the time they had searched Flores' home and that of his parents.

An attorney representing Flores, Sarah Sanger, told NBC News their firm will not comment on pending cases. Ruben Flores' attorney, Harold Mesick, declined comment to KSBY.

2. Smart Was Last Seen Heading Back to Her Dorm After a Party

With classes finished before the long Memorial Day weekend, Smart called her parents on Friday, May 24, 1996, and left a message telling them that she and some friends were heading to a party at 8 p.m. that night. While she told her parents to call her before she left, she never spoke to them.

Smart ended up attending an off-campus party, where she became intoxicated and passed out on a neighbor's lawn, according to witnesses.

Smart's parents described her to the Los Angeles Times in 2006 as "a dreamer" who loved the ocean and poetry, and had once been a counselor at a camp on Oahu.

3. Smart Was Last Seen with Flores — Who Had Long Been a Person of Interest

Police have said that two students, including one of Smart's girlfriends, offered to help her get back to her dorm, since she was unsteady on her feet. While they headed back to Muir Hall, where Smart lived during the school year, Flores volunteered to walk her home, according to police.

No one ever saw Smart again. The next afternoon, when Smart failed to show up for lunch, her friend alerted campus police, which didn't begin fully investigating her disappearance until that Tuesday, when classes resumed, according to authorities.

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4. Flores Was Questioned by Police, Admitted He Lied to Cops

After Smart vanished, campus police questioned Flores. When he was asked about a black eye he sported, he told campus police he got hurt in a pickup basketball game, but authorities grew suspicious when one of his friends later told authorities Flores already had the bruise when he showed up to play.

According to The Tribune of San Luis Obispo, he later admitted that was a lie and told authorities he got the bruise fixing his truck before ending the interview.

Later that year, after Flores had returned home for the summer, investigators from the sheriff's office later searched his dorm room with four cadaver dogs, which keyed in on Flores' mattress, according to police.

But Flores had never been charged, and in 1996, a grand jury did not indict him.

He has remained mum about the case, invoking his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent when he was deposed in a 2005 wrongful death civil suit brought against him by Smart's parents, which they subsequently dropped.

PEOPLE has never been able to reach Flores for comment.

In 1998, his attorney told PEOPLE that authorities had no evidence against Flores.

"It's one thing to have suspicions," Melvin de la Motte told PEOPLE, "but that doesn't make up for evidence."

PEOPLE was unable to reach de la Motte for comment following Tuesday's arrests.

5. Smart's Family Issues Statement: 'Bittersweet Day'

On Tuesday, Smart's family released a statement addressing the arrests, KSBY reports.

"For over twenty-four years, we have waited for this bittersweet day. It is impossible to put into words what this day means for our family; we pray it is the first step to bringing our daughter home. While Kristin's loving spirit will always live in our hearts, our life without her hugs, laughs and smiles is a heartache that never abates. The knowledge that a father and son, despite our desperate pleas for help, could have withheld this horrible secret for nearly 25 years, denying us the chance to lay our daughter to rest, is an unrelenting and unforgiving pain. We now put our faith in the justice system and move forward, comforted in the knowledge that Kristin has been held in the hearts of so many and that she has not been forgotten," the statement read.

It added, "We honor Kristin today and those who worked with unparalled tenacity and dedication to bring us to this day. Without Kristin in our life, there will never be justice, but we will pray for peace. Unfortunately, the indifference and lack of resolve we experienced early on set the course for many years.

"However, when Sheriff Parkinson took office in 2011, he made a promise that Kristin's disappearance would be one of his top priorities. We are here today because he has remained true to his word. We have kept the faith; never given up; and fully placed our trust and support with him and his team."