On May 25, 1996, at 2 a.m., 19-year-old Cal Poly freshman Kristen Smart was last seen at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Perimeter Road on the Cal Poly campus with fellow student Paul Flores. Just a month short of 25 years later, Flores, the last person to see Smart alive, was charged with her murder.
When Smart was reported missing three days later, on May 28, I was nearing the end of my first newspaper stint as a reporter/Sunday editor at The Lompoc Record. The next month I'd be heading up to Aberdeen, Wash., to take a job at The Daily World. My younger sister was finishing up her junior year at Cal Poly, having decided to attend after spending a weekend with me and my friends—to her shock, her brother wasn't the big dork she'd remembered in high school.
To say the case concerned me would've been an understatement. Even as I moved 1,000 miles away, the story continued to appear on the news wires and it was possible to continue to follow the story on the nascent World Wide Web. It was the type of story that the media loves. A young, pretty girl just disappeared. Gone. No body. No crime scene. Nothing.
The story never really went away. The Smart case was featured twice on "Unsolved Mysteries," Season 9, Episode 1 with Robert Stack, and again Season 4, Episode15 with Dennis Farina. Every few years, the local media would do an almost obligatory article on the still-open case.
While the news coverage was relatively consistent, it was a really slow burn. There's only so much you can write about on a case where there are no new public details for years at a time.
It wasn't until current Sheriff Ian Parkinson was elected in 2011 that the case received a second life. Parkinson created a cold case unit with a dedicated investigator who tackled not just the Smart case, but others as well.
In just the past few years, investigators served more than a dozen search warrants and brought in heavy equipment for excavations at both the Flores' homes and the Cal Poly campus. None of these have yet yielded Smart's remains—at this point we're no longer looking for a body per se—yet it seems likely that the recent law enforcement searches led to yesterday's arrests.
At his press conference, Parkinson revealed that authorities had taps on the father and son's cell phones and text messages. I'd bet good money on the proposition that conversations between the two, prompted by the searches, will provide convincing evidence of their guilt.
In 2019, local musician and podcaster Chris Lambert started investigating the Kristen Smart case on his own. Hours upon hours of research and interviews eventually turned into a six-episode podcast "Your Own Hometown." The podcasts are engaging and demonstrate the level of technical expertise you'd expect from a musician.
After the initial six episodes rocketed to the top of Apple iTunes' True Crime category in late 2019 and garnered millions of downloads around the world, Lambert finally got a coveted interview with the San Luis Obispo County's Sheriff's Department investigators that resulted in a seventh episode in January 2020. While the interview itself revealed little about the details of the investigation, sheriff's investigators made it clear that Lambert's work had provided new information and leads in the case.
An eighth episode followed in November 2020, along with an episode of "48 Hours" on CBS, that revealed some new information that the initial episodes had generated in the decades-old case.
Lambert isn't a trained journalist. He doesn't have a journalism degree. But he's smart. He's dogged. He deserves all the acclaim that he's received.
Contrary to much of the "old media" old guard, journalism doesn't require a journalism degree. It doesn't require layers and layers of editors. It doesn't require the backing of a media corporation. With the Internet, a printing press and barrels of ink, or a radio or TV studio with a high-power transmitter aren't prerequisites to do "journalism."
I appeared on Dave Congalton's radio show yesterday afternoon (the audio is at the bottom of this post) to talk about the case, citizen journalism, and some options on what the old media can do. I'd suggested that the local TV station, KSBY, an NBC affiliate, partner with Lambert to turn his podcasts along with their archival video into a limited series.
In reading up on the case, it appears that CBS News already has him under contract.
I also mentioned that, in what I'd heard of the podcasts, there was one thing I would've cut completely as an editor. It appeared in Episode 6, when Lambert interviews a former co-worker of Paul Flores at an L.A.-area Coca-Cola bottling plant. In that portion of the podcast, Lambert references a case of another Coca-Cola worker at a different L.A.-area Coca-Cola bottling plant who went missing and was later found murdered in her car.
There's no evidence Flores was involved in the other murder. He didn't yet work at Coca-Cola when this murder occurred and there is no evidence that he knew this other young woman. It's an interesting bit of trivia, but a distraction from the overall picture.
Now comes the prosecution, hopefully a conviction, and the eventual discovery of Smart's remains. While much of the evidence against Paul Flores and his father, Ruben, is still sealed, you hope that it is solid—and damning. The only thing worse than waiting 25 years for justice, is waiting 25 years and bringing a fatally flawed case that results in the guilty going free.
In the coming months we'll see what evidence the state has accumulated. We will have a clearer picture of Smart's final hours, and a prosecution narrative on the cover-up and disposal of her remains.
Soon, hopefully, we'll also have justice.