Attorneys spar in Kristin Smart murder trial opening, 25 years in the making

A murder trial in California digs at the question of how much physical evidence is needed to prove a murder occurred despite many years and no body.

SALINAS, Calif. (CN) — More than a quarter of a century since Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student Kristin Smart disappeared, California prosecutors face two juries in a courtroom in the small Monterey County city of Salinas to answer how much evidence is needed to prove a murder occurred .

Their job is to prove to a jury that Paul Flores, now 45, was responsible for killing Smart — a California Polytechnic University student missing since 1996 — and, to another jury, that his father, Ruben Flores, now 81, helped him hide Smart’s body. The investigation in San Luis Obispo County has never gone completely cold, given a complaint filed by District Attorney Dan Dow led to the arrest of the Floreses. Dow believes Paul Flores killed Smart while trying to rape her after an off-campus fraternity party. Smart has not been seen since the party despite extensive searches conducted throughout the county between 1996 and 2007.

The case has spanned 26 years, during which time local law enforcement worked with the FBI to try to collect evidence or a confession from Flores, using informants and wiretapping. Smart’s disappearance in state legislation, including the Kristin Smart Campus Security Act, passed unanimously and signed into law by then-Governor Pete Wilson. It requires all publicly funded educational institutions in California to have security services make agreements with local police departments regarding cases possibly involving violence against students.

Until now, little physical evidence in the case has been released to the public — a fact on which Flores’ defense attorney Robert Sanger has focused. But prosecutors say they will release new evidence and witnesses in a trial expected to last into October.

Montery County Superior Court Judge Jennifer O’Keefe oversees the People v. Paul Flores case moved from San Luis Obispo County. (Daniel Dreifuss/ Monterey County Weekly)

Monterey County Superior Court Judge Jennifer O’Keefe is overseeing the case, moved from San Luis Obispo County due to high publicity in the area where Smart attended college and disappeared and where Paul Flores’ parents still reside.

In about 90 minutes, San Luis Obispo Deputy District Attorney Christopher Peuvrelle took the jury down the timeline of 25 years, pointing to the defendant sitting across from him wearing a three-piece suit and a white mask, many times.

Peuvrelle told the jury Smart’s family has mourned her disappearance ever since the first Sunday she missed a weekly phone call with them.

Prosecutor Chris Peuvrelle makes an opening statement on the first day of the Paul Flores trial in a Monterey County Court room.(Daniel Dreifuss/ Monterey County Weekly)

“1,359 Sundays have passed since May 26 of 1996,” he said. “They were a very tight-knit family and they all looked forward to that phone call.” He described Smart as a beloved older sibling and having many friends at Cal Poly, who left a happy voicemail for her mother the day before she disappeared about good news she would share.

The family never heard her news or her voice again. Peuvrelle walked through the events of May 25 and early in the morning May 26, when a drunk Smart was found on the ground at a party and escorted toward the campus. Paul Flores was the last person seen with Smart, having offered to take her to her dorm room — located in the opposite direction from his dorm building — since she was incapacitated. The next morning, her roommates said she had never returned and everything she owned including ID cards, credit cards and all her clothing and school possessions were in her room. They knew “it was not like her,” Peuvrelle said.

Although for many students who knew Smart “a lot of life has gone by,” Peuvrelle said witnesses will come forward who worked with law enforcement for years to try to solve her disappearance. He told the jury evidence will show Paul Flores expressed interest in Smart and was seen talking to her more than once at the party before persuading two people to let him take her to her dorm alone. He said Flores’ only phone call that weekend was to his father, and neither men could account for their whereabouts that weekend. He also noted detectives accused Flores of lying about details of that night, but never had enough evidence to arrest him.

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