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College student Kristin Smart vanished nearly 25 years ago. A classmate was just arrested.

California Polytechnic State University President Jeffrey D. Armstrong speaks during a news conference in San Luis Obispo, Calif., on April 13, 2021. (David Middlecamp/Tribune (of San Luis Obispo)/AP)
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Nearly 25 years ago, 19-year-old Kristin Smart was last seen walking back to her dormitory from an off-campus party, escorted by fellow freshman Paul Flores.

Smart never made it to her dorm room at California Polytechnic State University, and Flores became a person of interest, according to investigators looking into Smart’s disappearance from the campus in San Luis Obispo. But for decades, searches for her remains were unsuccessful, leaving detectives with only suspicions about how she vanished.

On Tuesday, California authorities announced that they had evidence to arrest and charge Flores, now 44, in Smart’s death. His father, Ruben Flores, 80, also was charged, with accessory to the killing, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said.

“On May 25, 1996, this was the last place that Kristin Smart was seen alive,” Parkinson said during a news conference. “It has been 24 — almost 25 years — since Kristin went missing. Twenty-four years without a resolution, until today.”

Kristin Smart vanished 25 years ago. Police are again searching home linked to ‘prime suspect.’

The sheriff said investigators recently discovered evidence related to Smart’s death when they executed search warrants at two properties tied to the Flores family, but Parkinson declined to reveal what was found, citing due process and the sealed warrants. Smart’s body, Parkinson said, has not been recovered, although search efforts continue.

“We have not recovered Kristin,” he said. “We will continue to focus on finding her remains regardless of any court action.”

Search warrants were executed at Ruben Flores’s home in Arroyo Grande, Calif., and Paul Flores’s home in San Pedro after their arrests. As of Tuesday evening, Paul Flores was being held without bail until an initial court appearance Thursday. Ruben Flores was jailed in lieu of $250,000 bail.

Paul Flores’s attorney, Robert Sanger, declined to comment about the case. Harold Mesick, a lawyer for Ruben Flores, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Smart’s family, in a statement, called the moment “bittersweet.”

“It is impossible to put into words what this day means for our family; we pray it is the first step to bringing our daughter home,” the family wrote. “While Kristin’s loving spirit will always live in our hearts, our life without her hugs, laughs and smiles is a heartache that never abates.”

Parkinson partly attributed the developments in the case to new information brought forth by an episodic podcast, “Your Own Backyard,” produced by a journalist, Chris Lambert. Parkinson said the podcast led investigators to a witness in 2019 who had not previously been interviewed. New information helped detectives obtain a court order to monitor Paul Flores’s cellphone. Physical evidence was gathered in subsequent searches of the homes of Flores family members, including evidence found in March at Ruben Flores’s home that was linked to Smart, according to the sheriff.

What investigators found is likely to become known to the public only when the San Luis Obispo County district attorney files charging documents.

“I understand a lot of people want to know what we found,” Parkinson said. “Unfortunately, the search warrants were sealed, which means I can’t discuss what evidence was found.”

20 years after Kristin Smart vanished, authorities unearth ‘items of interest’ in campus dig

During the probe spanning nearly a quarter of a century, officials have pored over hundreds of items of evidence, including materials that were collected in the beginning and re-examined using modern DNA testing, Parkinson said. More than 130 people were interviewed and at least 16 sites were searched, including a hillside near where Smart was last seen. The size of the file on Smart’s disappearance, Parkinson estimated, would be more than three terabytes.

Following the years of digs and searches, Jeffrey D. Armstrong, the president of the university, said Tuesday that the community is encouraged that long-awaited justice will come.

“The news today of the arrests in connection with the case bring sadness but also a measure of relief and hope for resolution,” Armstrong said. “While we know today’s developments do not represent the end of the case, it is a significant step.”

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