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SALINAS, Calif. (KRON) — Kristin Smart’s accused killer was found guilty of first-degree murder by a jury on Tuesday afternoon. Jurors convicted Paul Flores of murdering the 19-year-old college student in 1996, and acquitted Flores’ father, Ruben Flores.

Ruben Flores was accused of helping cover up the murder by burying Smart’s body in the backyard of his Arroyo Grande, Calif., home.

Smart was a college freshman when she vanished on May 25, 1996 from California Polytechnic State University’s campus in San Luis Obispo. A fellow Cal Poly student, Paul Flores, murdered Smart as he attempted to rape her in his dorm room.

Paul Flores now faces 25 years to life in prison and will remain in custody. His father was allowed to leave the Monterey County courthouse Tuesday as a free man.

Smart’s body has never been found. It took law enforcement and prosecutors 25 years to find enough evidence against Paul Flores to charge him with Smart’s murder.

Kristin Smart
Kristin Smart

The trials, which began on July 18, were held in Monterey County because a judge ruled that finding unbias jurors in San Luis Obispo County was too difficult. Smart’s 1996 disappearance set off county-wide search efforts.

“While the entire community banded together to search for Kristin desperately, Paul and Ruben did not. Ruben tore down missing posters of Kristin showing her smiling beautiful face, called her a ‘dirty slut,’ all while her corpse was decomposing under his deck,” Deputy District Attorney Christopher Peuvrelle told the jury in opening statements.

An empty gravesite with tiny traces of blood was found in Ruben Flores’ backyard in April of 2021, according to a forensic archeologist’s testimony. Ground-penetrating radar indicated that someone dug up the body, and moved it, shortly before a search warrant was executed on the property, according to investigators.

“We don’t have a full intact body in this case, but we have her blood. A couple grains of bloody sand … that’s all the Smart family has left of their daughter,” Peuvrelle said.

Paul Flores
Paul Flores listens in court on July 18, 2022. (Pool photo by Daniel Dreifuss / Monterey County Weekly)

For the trial’s closing arguments, Paul and Ruben Flores’ defense attorneys said prosecutors never proved that Smart was murdered. “There is no evidence of a murder. Conspiracy theories are fun. But you are here as jurors. This is a sad case, there’s no question about it. It would be nice to say she was angelic, but the reality is she was engaged in risky behavior,” defense attorney Robert Sanger said. “It’s not entirely unlikely that Kristin Smart is still alive somewhere,” defense attorney Harold Mesick said.

San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Office investigators search the backyard of the home of Ruben Flores on March 16, 2021, in Arroyo Grande, Calif. (AP Photo /Daniel Dreifuss)

In the days after Smart vanished, Cal Poly campus police zeroed-in on Paul Flores because he was the last person seen with Smart while they were walking back to the dorms from a party. Smart’s close friend, Steve Fleming, told police that Paul Flores’ nickname around campus was “Chester the Molester” because of his creepy and overly-aggressive behavior toward female students. 

Smart’s friends testified that she was “too nice” to tell Paul Flores to leave her alone. “What we would see as kindness, he would see as a d**k tease. In his predatory, vile, rapist mind, that’s what he saw her as,” Peuvrelle said.

Prosecutors said Smart was “hunted” for months by Paul Flores until he saw his chance: Smart was “incapacitated” from something she drank at a party and passed out on the party house’s lawn. Students who attended the party testified that Paul Flores promised to make sure she made it back to her dorm safely.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.