A Podcast Leads to Solving the Murder of a College Coed in California -- 25 Years After It Happened

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

I was stunned last week when it was announced in California that the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney had charged Paul Flores with First Degree Murder in the death of Kristin Smart —  24 years and 11 months after the last day she was seen alive.

Her body has never been found.

Paul Flores has been the prime suspect, and pretty much the only suspect, since May 25, 1996, as he was thought to be the last person to see her alive as he walked with his arm around her waist taking her back to her dormitory room on the campus of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.  They did not know each other but had met at an off-campus party earlier in the evening.  While at the party, Smart had too much to drink, and in a highly inebriated condition, she was in need of the assistance of other students to make the walk from the house where the party took place back to her dorm room. She was initially accompanied by two other students as well as Flores, but they each peeled off as they reached their own destinations.  Flores promised the other two that he would get Smart to her dorm room which was in a dorm building close to his own.

Kristin Smart was never seen again after the early morning hours of May 25, 1996, the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend.  Kristin Smart was 19.

A student from Australia who was attending Cal Poly during the spring semester of 1996, but who had returned to Australia before the police could talk to him, was later interviewed by telephone and described something he saw at 2:00 am while riding his bike from the library back to his dorm room, which took him down the same street that Smart and Flores had walked down.  As noted, it was Memorial Day Weekend, many students had left for the holiday, and the ones who had stayed behind were studying for upcoming finals.  The Australian student noticed one building with bright lights illuminating the entryway with two tall glass doors, and a tall glass window into what looked like a “common room” next to the doors. As he rode past, the Australian student noticed through the window a young man and a young woman engaged in what appeared to be a physical struggle or confrontation inside the building.  It didn’t look friendly, but it did not look too violent either and he rode past without stopping.

When he described what he saw, he told the San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Office detective that the male was of average height and build, but the female was unusually tall — obviously taller than the male.

Paul Flores is 5’9.”

Kristin Smart was a fit and slim 6’1″.

The Australian student described for the police the route that he rode on his bike that evening, and the police then went out and videotaped the route.  They sent the videotape to Australia and asked the student to identify which building he recalled seeing the incident.  When he did so, the police concluded that the building he identified was neither Smart’s dormitory nor Flores’ dormitory — so the Australian student must have witnessed some other disagreement between a male and female on campus.

Another 6’1″ blond female apparently, happened to be engaged in a confrontation with a shorter male at almost the exact same time on the same night that Kristin Smart was last seen while in the company of Paul Flores.

The Australian student was never contacted again after 1996.

That is just one fascinating data point that contributes to the explanation for why Paul Flores was never arrested for the murder of Kristin Smart.

Flores’s father, Rueben Flores, is also charged in the case, alleged to have helped Paul Flores cover up the murder and dispose of Kristin Smart’s body.   There is substantial evidence that his mother, Susan Flores, has known about the killing since shortly after it happened, and has cooperated with Paul and Rueben to cover up what Paul did.

So, what happened after almost 25 years to lead to the charges being filed?

This happened:  Your Own Backyard

Chris Lambert, 30, a freelance journalist, podcaster, and life-long resident of the Central Coast of California, decided to learn more about the face on a billboard that he had seen throughout his life — a picture of Kristin Smart, listing a reward of $75,000, and three phone numbers to call with information.

There is much to criticize in the work done by law enforcement authorities during the first 15 years following Smart’s disappearance, and Lambert uncovered and cataloged most of it.  The police had one suspect, but early in the investigation, they made the mistake of communicating to Paul Flores and his family that there was no physical evidence tying him to Smart’s disappearance, only a mountain of circumstantial evidence.  During their efforts to get him to make a statement, Flores and his family realized that if they said nothing, and if Paul Flores refused to answer any questions on the grounds of the Fifth Amendment, unless the police recovered her body and could link him to her remains, they would likely never be able to charge him in connection with her death.

But in 2011, a new Sheriff was elected in San Luis Obispo County, and he created a “Cold Case Unit”, with the Kristin Smart case as the unit’s top priority.  They knew they had the right suspect, it was just a matter of building a case against him.  The Cold Case Unit went back and started over again, retesting the evidence gathered in 1996 with more modern forensic examination techniques.  They obtained new search warrants based on information they were able to put together from the re-investigation.  But the investigation seemed to stall again in 2016 after a very public excavation was done in a specific location on the Cal Poly campus.  That search received a great deal of public attention because of its location, but it did not seem to produce the breakthrough that was hoped for.

That is where Lambert’s interest comes in.  Beginning in September 2019, Lambert published on a newly created website a series of very well-produced and written one-hour podcasts detailing the findings from his investigation into what happened to Kristin Smart, and the efforts and missteps of law enforcement in the years that followed.  He published six episodes of approximately one hour in length each between September 29, 2019, and November 11, 2019.  The sixth episode was titled “Open and Ongoing” and focused on the efforts of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Detective who ran the Cold Case Unit, and was the lead detective on the Kristin Smart investigation.  The Detective was very open with Lambert that his podcasts had struck a nerve in the community, given some life to the investigation, and the SLO Sheriff’s Office was receiving tips and information that it did not possess prior to the podcasts being aired.

On January 29, 2020, Lambert released his seventh episode in which he discussed some of the tips he had received through his website in the fall of 2019 as the podcast episodes were broadcast, and ongoing discussions he was having with retired investigators and detectives who had worked on the case over the course of the 23 years that had passed since Kristin Smart disappeared.

But, more importantly, the renewed public interest in the Kristin Smart case apparently created concern and turmoil within the Flores family.  Rueben and Susan Flores, long since divorced, both still lived near San Luis Obispo.  Paul Flores had relocated to Southern California within a couple of years after Kristin Smart’s disappearance, but his life continued with a series of difficulties and disappointments, including seven convictions for drunk driving.

Sometime after that February 2020 podcast, it seems as if the police were able to obtain search warrants — and maybe wiretap warrants — which gave them the authority to monitor conversations and text messages being exchanged between the Flores’ family members.

Lambert published his eighth podcast episode on November 25, 2020, going back through all the information he had collected during the course of his investigation — which led him to identify the Australian student who had never been contacted by the police after 1996.  Lambert tracked him down in Norway and recorded a telephone conversation with him.

Precisely what happened between November 2020 and last week is not yet known. But the complaint charging Paul Flores with the murder of Kristin Smart specifies that he killed her inside his dorm room and that he did so either in the process of attempting to rape her or after he had raped her.  The Sheriff confirmed that critical evidence was obtained from monitoring Flores family communications by computer and telephone as public interest in the disappearance of Kristin Smart began to build after Lambert’s podcasts began to air in September 2019.

I was a federal prosecutor in 1996, and I had reason to be familiar with the disappearance of Kristin Smart though I never had any official connection to the case.  But I was wearing a big smile on Tuesday last week when I told my wife what had happened back in California.  There was never another suspect.

The eight-hour investment in listening to Chris Lambert’s podcast is well worth the time.  It is a great piece of work and you can tell that it became a labor of love for Lambert — that finally paid off.