A judge last week upheld murder charges against a father and son accused in the death of 19-year-old Cal Poly student Kristin Smart, citing the “totality of circumstances” that started when she went missing in 1996 and included evidence obtained from an alleged Arroyo Grande burial site earlier this year.
San Luis Obispo County Judge Craig van Rooyen issued his ruling on Sept. 22 after hearing closing arguments from attorneys Sept. 20, following a weekslong, near-continuous preliminary hearing for suspects Paul and Ruben Flores that began on Aug. 2.
Van Rooyen made his ruling based on the lower probable cause standard in a preliminary hearing — when a reasonable person believes a crime was committed — as opposed to the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, which is needed to obtain a conviction in jury trials.
"There is enough in the court's view to create a strong suspicion that the defendants are guilty of the crimes they're charged with and the probable cause standard has been met," van Rooyen said, adding there is a “strong suspicion [that] Kristin Smart is deceased.”
Attorneys rested their cases Monday in the weekslong preliminary hearing for Paul and Ruben Flores, who are charged in the death Kristin Smart, the 19-year-old Cal Poly student who went missing on May 25, 1996.
The case now proceeds to a trial date, which has yet to be determined.
Smart’s family members, who are from Stockton, have attended the preliminary hearing since day one and often wore the color purple in solidarity because it was Smart’s favorite color.
"We continue to support the family of Kristin Smart as we work toward justice," District Attorney Dan Dow said on Sept. 22.
Paul Flores, 44, of San Pedro is charged with first-degree murder. His father, 80-year-old Ruben Flores, is charged with accessory to murder after the fact and is accused of burying Smart’s body under the backyard deck of his residence in the 700 block of White Court in Arroyo Grande. They both have pleaded not guilty.
The defendants were arrested April 13 and charged the next day following search warrants served on each of their homes, including Ruben Flores’ house, where investigators searched with cadaver dogs, ground-penetrating radar, an archaeologist and located an alleged burial plot underneath the western portion of the deck.
The plot measured approximately 4 feet by 6 feet, was 4 feet deep, and soil samples indicated the presence of human blood, but no DNA, according to testimony.
Paul Flores was booked into County Jail and a bail amount has not been set. Ruben Flores was also booked, but was released April 22 after van Rooyen lowered his bail amount to $50,000.
In a press conference held by Dow on April 14, the District Attorney accused Paul Flores of killing Smart during an attempted rape in his Santa Lucia Hall dorm room on May 25, 1996, when she went missing.
Paul Flores was last seen with Smart at about 2 a.m. near the intersection of Perimeter Road and Grand Avenue, steps away from their dorms, according to witness Cheryl Manzer, a former student who walked with the two before splitting off.
Smart wasn’t seen again after that. She was declared legally dead in 2002 and her body has not been found.
In March and April, San Luis Obispo County sheriff's investigators served search warrants on Ruben Flores’ residence and inside a trailer seized by detectives, where specialists testified to finding a "human body" stain after spraying a proprietary chemical that reacts to blood protein.
Throughout the preliminary hearing, van Rooyen heard testimony from K-9 handlers, retired detectives, Smart’s college friends and her parents, forensic serologists and fiber experts, among others.
Attorneys Bob Sanger, who represents Paul Flores, and Harold Mesick, who represents Ruben Flores, challenged the prosecution’s case, saying there is no evidence that Smart is dead and was buried in Arroyo Grande, according to closing arguments.
In his legal analysis of the ruling, van Rooyen began with the off-campus party, where Paul Flores and Smart were seen together, according to witnesses.
Van Rooyen cited Manzer’s testimony of Paul Flores asking her for a hug and a kiss just before leaving him with Smart, after the three walked together from the party. The judge also included witness testimony from Tim Davis, a former student who also walked with the three a short distance as an intoxicated Smart clung onto him before he handed her off to Paul Flores.
The judge cited Paul Flores’ interviews with investigators following Smart’s disappearance, including “minimized” statements about the contact he had with her at the party and a black eye he received, which the judge called an “inference of consciousness of guilt.”
In addition, there was “no credible sighting” of Smart after she went missing, according to van Rooyen.
Van Rooyen cited testimony from three K-9 handlers, whose cadaver dogs “independently” alerted to Paul Flores' side of Santa Lucia Hall dorm room 128 on June 29, 1996, after the room had already been cleaned.
The dog alerts alone, and the cadaver dogs’ changes in behavior underneath the deck during the March search warrant, aren’t sufficient and need to include something found in the searches, according to van Rooyen.
Despite extensive testimony from the handlers, van Rooyen said defense attorneys never called a rebuttal witness.
The judge factored in testimony from Cindy Arrington, a registered professional archaeologist, Shelby Liddell, a Sheriff’s Office forensic specialist and from forensic serologist Angie Butler about alleged human decomposition stains found in the burial site and soil samples that tested positive for human blood.
Van Rooyen also noted Arrington's testimony about the stains, which matched the pattern of "cadaver soap," a byproduct of human decomposition, and were "discontinuous," indicating that a body was removed from the site.
The defendants are scheduled to appear in-person for an arraignment at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 20 in Dept. 5 of Superior Court.