Nearly 25 years after Cal Poly student Kristin Smart disappeared from the college campus, prime suspect Paul Flores was arrested on suspicion of murder Tuesday, and his father was arrested on suspicion of being an accessory to murder, according to sheriff's officials.
Paul Flores, 43, was arrested in San Pedro and booked into San Luis Obispo County Jail, with no bail listed. He was the last person seen with Smart as he walked with her on the Cal Poly campus in the early morning of May 25, 1996. Her body has never been found, including during a search Tuesday. She was declared legally dead in 2002.
Ruben Flores, 80, also was booked into County Jail on Tuesday, with his bail set at $250,000.
During a press conference held at Cal Poly after the arrests, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson told a crowd of reporters and students that investigators had discovered "something of value" linked to Smart in at least two locations searched in the case, although the search for her body continues.
Sealed warrants were issued before Tuesday's search of Ruben Flores' Arroyo Grande home in the 700 block of White Court, according to Parkinson, who added that a Ramey warrant also was signed in the event Flores had to be arrested at his home.
Neither Paul Flores nor Ruben Flores said "anything of consequence" when they were arrested, according to Parkinson.
Both men are scheduled for arraignments at 8 a.m. Thursday in San Luis Obispo Superior Court, and the hearing will be livestreamed, officials said. The District Attorney's Office is expected to hold a press conference Wednesday regarding charges filed, according to Parkinson.
Through a spokesman, the Smart family released a statement following the arrests, expressing gratitude for the "unparalleled tenacity and dedication" of those involved in the investigation.
"It is impossible to put into words what this day means for our family," according to the statement. "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."
Parkinson cited Smart's mother, Denise, when he described the investigation as a puzzle.
"This is what it has been, a puzzle and a very slow process," Parkinson said. "We have to see what that puzzle reveals."
Additionally, Parkinson cautioned against quick judgment, stating that the case still must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
"We have a right and [a duty] to protect people who are innocent as well as those who are guilty," Parkinson said. "We're after all kinds of things, anything that will lead us to Kristin."
Since 2011, Parkinson said investigators have served 41 search warrants, interviewed 137 witnesses and compiled more than three terabytes of data in the case, adding that the investigation is closer to finding Smart's body despite "missteps" that he said were made with the investigation before he was the sheriff.
Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong credited Orcutt native Chris Lambert for bringing national attention to the case with the "Your Own Backyard" podcast, which Parkinson said produced more information in the investigation.
"The news today brings sadness but a measure of relief," Armstrong said.
Lambert said he had a "hunch" a search warrant could be served Tuesday and rushed to the Arroyo Grande home sometime around 6 a.m. when he began livestreaming on social media.
"I still haven't sat down to breathe yet," Lambert said after the press conference, citing interview requests he fielded from across the country Tuesday.
Investigators were on scene early Tuesday, utilizing heavy tools inside the residence, where grinding and hammering noises could be heard. A coroner's tent was set up in the home's back yard.
At one point, officials sprayed an odorous substance that emanated from the residence. By 5 p.m., officials were concluding their operations for the day.
The arrest of both Paul Flores and Ruben Flores comes one month after sheriff's officials executed a search at Ruben Flores' home using ground-penetrating radar and a cadaver dog. Information about what they discovered during that search has not been released.
Several people, some with children in strollers and pets, drove to Arroyo Grande on Tuesday to watch investigators search the location, as they took pictures and livestreamed with their cellphones.
Alison Verge, 43, of Morro Bay was one of at least two dozen onlookers who came to Ruben Flores' home.
"I have a son and, you know, he's seen and heard everything about the case," said Verge, who became aware of the Smart case from Lambert's podcast.
Corrin Lee, 41, of Morro Bay was with Verge and has followed Smart's disappearance since she was 16 years-old.
"How is it that after 25 years this house has never been searched?" Lee said. "We have waited for this day for a long time and hopefully justice will be served."