After hearing 11 weeks of evidence and a set of fiery closing arguments, jurors on Tuesday began deliberating whether to convict Paul Flores for the 1996 murder of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student Kristin Smart.
“Paul Flores murdered her and buried her under his father’s deck. It is that simple,” San Luis Obispo County Deputy Dist. Atty. Chris Peuvrelle said in his closing arguments in a Salinas courtroom.
Flores’ attorney, Robert Sanger, finished his closing arguments by telling jurors that “there is no evidence of a murder — so that is really the end of it.”
Smart was 19 when she vanished 26 years ago after walking toward the dormitories with Flores. Her body has never been found, but she was legally declared dead in 2002.
Her disappearance and the subsequent murder investigation left an indelible mark on the Central Coast college town. Billboards appealed for evidence to convict her killer. The killing was the subject of a true-crime podcast. And it spawned a cottage industry of investigators.
Peuvrelle said Flores, 45, raped or attempted to rape — and eventually killed — Smart before hiding her remains with the help of his father.
San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s detectives arrested Flores at his San Pedro home in April 2021, decades after identifying him as a person of interest in Smart’s disappearance.
His father, Ruben Flores, was taken into custody last year at his home in Arroyo Grande, Calif., and charged with being an accessory to the crime. Prosecutors say he helped hide Smart’s body before moving it in 2020.
Peuvrelle told jurors that Flores and his father knew where Smart’s body was all those years.
“But now you know where she was all along: under their deck,” Peuvrelle told jurors as he pointed toward Paul and Ruben Flores.
Ruben Flores, 81, is being tried at the same time as his son. Separate juries hearing the case together are deciding each man’s fate.
Sanger told jurors that they had been told “a bunch of conspiracy theories not backed up by facts” by a prosecutor intent on making them hate Paul Flores.
Peuvrelle, he claimed, had witnesses testify about remarks Flores never made about Smart.
“He is trying to bootstrap a murder where there is no evidence of murder,” Sanger said.
Peuvrelle rebutted that claim Tuesday, saying, “The people’s case is not a conspiracy theory.”
He added, sarcastically: “So some 50 witnesses spanning 26 years are part of the conspiracy.”
Among the witnesses, the prosecutor noted, were three police dog handlers who testified their cadaver dogs each had sought out Flores’ room from more than 120 rooms in the dormitory and signaled they had detected the scent of death.
Peuvrelle told jurors that Paul Flores should be found guilty under the state’s felony murder law since he allegedly committed the killing in his dorm room as part of a rape or attempted rape of an intoxicated person.
A San Luis Obispo County judge earlier ordered the Flores trials be moved more than 100 miles north to Monterey County to ensure fair legal proceedings.
Smart was last seen on May 25, 1996, as she was walking with Flores near the residence halls on campus after attending a party.
Peuvrelle told jurors that Flores, a fellow Cal Poly student, had “hunted” her for months, frequently appearing where she was, including her dormitory.
The night of the party, he appeared out of the darkness to help her walk home after she had passed out on a lawn from drinking heavily, the prosecutor said.
Two women testified last month that Flores drugged and raped them decades after Smart vanished.
The women used the pseudonyms Sarah Doe and Rhonda Doe, and alleged Flores sexually assaulted them in Los Angeles in 2008 and 2011, respectively.
Peuvrelle called Flores a “serial drugger” and rapist.
“Sarah Doe and Rhonda Doe,” he said, “tell us what Kristin could not: that she was raped or that Paul Flores tried to rape her.”
The prosecutor said Flores had offered to give the women rides home after meeting them, only to drug and repeatedly rape them at his house.
Showing the jury an image found on Flores’ computer of a gagged woman, Peuvrelle added that the two witnesses had testified that they too were restrained with the same ball gag.
During his closing arguments, Sanger tried to undermine the testimony of the two women, noting that Rhonda Doe attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1996 and 1997, when Smart’s disappearance was getting much publicity. He said it was too much of a coincidence that she came forward with rape allegations in 2020.
Since the trial’s start in July, Peuvrelle has said that, during a four-day period when Flores was not seen on campus, he removed Smart’s body with the help of his father and buried it under the deck at his father’s Arroyo Grande house.
Ruben Flores, the prosecutor alleged, kept people away from the deck for years. A neighbor testified that, in 2020, as police were zeroing in on the house, she saw a bevy of activity as a trailer backed up to the property.
A soil scientist and archaeologist testified that ground radar showed an anomaly in the soil and indications of bodily fluids that were consistent with a body having been buried and removed.
Blood was detected there, the prosecutor repeatedly told jurors.
Sanger rebuffed that claim, telling jurors Tuesday that the blood detection was based on “junk science.” He said it was one of multiple claims in the prosecution’s case, including dogs smelling an odor of death, that did not have forensic evidence to support them.
Sanger told jurors that activists set on convicting Flores, as well as a true-crime podcast, “Your Own Backyard,” that turned up potential witnesses, influenced the prosecution.
With no evidence Smart was raped or that Flores attempted to rape her, jurors should not consider the testimony of Sarah Doe and Rhonda Doe, Sanger said.
He added that a key witness for the prosecution, Jennifer Hudson, who testified that Paul Flores admitted to her that he killed Smart, had offered varying versions of her story and waited many years before coming forward.
The judge on Tuesday rejected a motion for a mistrial by Flores’ attorney.
Sanger said the prosecutor erred in telling jurors they had a “binary choice” between the evidence offered by prosecutors and the defense. The burden of proof, he noted, is on the prosecution to prove its case.
The second jury will hear closing statements in Ruben Flores’ case on Wednesday.
The judge said both verdicts will be read together. After the first jury decision is reached, it will be held until the other jury reaches a verdict.