Without a body, Kristin Smart murder case hinges on graphic image, rape claims, forensics

·5 min read

Without a body to show in the 1996 San Luis Obispo cold case, the prosecution concluded its presentation in the Kristin Smart murder trial with a sexually explicit screenshot of another woman with a red ball gag in her mouth on the bed of Paul Flores’ San Pedro home.

Experts testified the image came from the computer of Flores, who has long been linked to Smart's disappearance.

Judge Jennifer O'Keefe on Tuesday instructed Monterey County jurors that it was only to be considered as corroborating evidence to a single detail from the testimonies of two women who told the panel that they were raped by Flores and that he owned a red ball gag, according to the San Luis Obispo County Tribune, which has been covering the trial.

Jurors had already heard those women testify that Flores — the last person seen walking with Smart on the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus on May 25, 1996, before she vanished — sexually assaulted them in Los Angeles separately in 2008 and 2011. The judge called the video that included the image shocking and said she picked the least inflammatory still image from it. Robert Sanger, Flores' attorney, outside the panel's presence, called it unduly prejudicial, the Tribune reported.

San Luis Obispo County Dist. Atty. Chris Peuvrelle for over two months has sought to show jurors that Flores raped and killed 19-year-old Smart before hiding her remains with the help of his father, Ruben. The older Flores is being tried at the same time for being an accessory to the crime, accused of helping dispose of the Cal Poly student's body. Separate juries hearing the case together will decide each man's fate.

The judge denied a motion from Paul and Ruben Flores to dismiss the case. Sanger told the judge there was "no evidence of a murder case, no evidence of a rape and no evidence in this case."

Ruben Flores' lawyer, Harold Mesick, went even further. He told the judge, "We don't even know if Kristin Smart is dead."

Those attorneys Wednesday began to chip away at the prosecution theory, knowing that without a body and DNA connecting Paul Flores and Smart despite the days of testimony, they need to convince jurors only that there is reasonable doubt of the crimes.

Seeking to undermine the theory that Smart was buried beneath Ruben Flores' deck for decades before being moved, Sanger called to the witness stand David Carter, a professor in forensic sciences at Chaminade University in Honolulu who spent 20 years studying decomposition. Carter said that he saw nothing in the data to suggest the presence of human remains and that decomposing bodies are messy and leave trace evidence behind even when they are removed from the soil.

Smart's disappearance and the murder investigation have haunted the Central Coast college community for decades, with billboards appealing for evidence to convict her killer. Her body has never been found, but she was legally declared dead in 2002.

San Luis Obispo County sheriff's detectives arrested Paul Flores, 44, at his San Pedro home in April 2021. His father was taken into custody last year at his home in Arroyo Grande, Calif. He is charged after prosecutors say he moved Smart's body.

Smart was last seen walking with Paul Flores near residence halls after attending a party. Both were Cal Poly students at the time.

A San Luis Obispo County judge ordered the trial be moved 126 miles north to Monterey County to ensure a fair trial.

During the trial, which began July 18, a prosecutor solicited testimony from witness Jennifer Hudson that Paul Flores admitted the crime to her in 1996, according to reporting in the Tribune and the Atascadero News.

“I’m done playing with her, and I put her out underneath my ramp," Hudson testified that Flores told her, seemingly referring to a local skateboarding ramp. But she didn't tell anyone of those words for years and informed the lead investigator in the case in 2019. She also admitted on the witness stand to using methamphetamine during that period but not on the day she heard Flores' alleged statement.

In other key testimony, neighbors, a former girlfriend of Paul Flores and a renter at Ruben Flores' home all testified about an area below the deck of the older Flores' Arroyo Grande home. The prosecutor elicited testimony to attempt to show Smart's body was concealed there for years and eventually moved. A March 2021 search of the home led investigators to find an area of disturbed soil.

An archeologist, Cindy Arrington, testified she and a colleague found stains in the soil consistent with human decomposition and a disturbance that suggested the soil had been removed and put back, according to KSBY-TV.

Jurors also heard from the two women who have accused Paul Flores of sexual assaults in L.A. Rhonda Doe, a court-assigned alias, testified that she met him in Thirsty bar in Redondo Beach and walked to his house in 2008, drank a glass of water and blacked out.

She said she awoke to find him having sex with her without her consent, and she recalled repeatedly lapsing in and out of consciousness and having a ball gag in her mouth, the Tribune reported. She testified she cried as she regained consciousness and demanded he drive her home, which he did. The woman testified she came forward after seeing his image on the news.

A second woman, known in court as Sarah Doe, testified that Flores raped her in 2011 after meeting her in a San Pedro bar where she had four or five alcoholic drinks. Once at his home, he offered her a nonalcoholic drink. She remembered going in and out of consciousness as he raped her on his bed and in the shower and tried to shove a red ball gag in her mouth.

She testified that she tried to report the incident to the police a few years later but didn't finish the report after being questioned. But she testified that she did tell two friends about it.

The true-crime podcast "Your Own Backyard" has been credited by authorities with reviving interest in the Smart case and helping identify potential new witnesses and avenues of investigation.

Here is full coverage of the trial from the Tribune.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.