Justice for Kristin Smart triggers trauma for San Luis Obispo women


May 25, 2021 marked 25 years since Kristin Smart went missing in San Luis Obispo. 

That’s the night she walked back to her California Polytechnic State University dorm room after a party. The last person to see her was a fellow student named Paul Flores.

A case that has remained unsolved for decades took a dramatic turn in April, when Flores was arrested and charged with killing Smart during an attempted rape. His father, Ruben Flores, was arrested and charged as an accessory to the murder.

 “It could have been me,” says Jasmine Armstrong, who lives in Grover Beach and is the same age Smart would have been if still alive. She didn’t know Smart personally, but remembers when she disappeared. 

“I was a senior in high school, and I was getting ready to graduate,” she says. “It was Memorial Day weekend of 1996. And then right after that, they reported she was missing.”

Armstrong went to Arroyo Grande High School at the same time Flores went there. She remembers him being inappropriate with girls during gym class, and he stalked a couple of her friends.

The charges and upcoming trial have sent shock waves of emotions through San Luis Obispo County, a mixture of joy and hope for justice along with an unspooling of collective trauma and grief, especially for women.

“With mothers who have daughters, there's this outrage at what happened to Kristin. And with women who have had issues of sexual violence, sexual harassment, rape, it brings up a lot of trauma,” she says.

Twenty-five years after Smart’s disappearance, people have not forgotten. A Facebook group called “Find Kristin Smart” has more than 30,000 members. Photo by Rick Evans.

A 2019 podcast called “In Your Own Backyard” helped renew interest in Smart’s case. Photo by Rick Evans.

Smart’s story has interwoven into the lives of many women who grew up around her disappearance. 

“The world became visibly an unsafe place,” says Amanda Cochoran, who was in elementary school when Smart went missing. She remembers walking to elementary school and the public pool on her own in the early 1990s. But after Smart’s disappearance in 1996 and the rape and murder of two college students in 1998 and 1999 by serial killer Rex Krebs, her parents became much more protective. 

Flores’ arrest reminds Cochoran of the freedom she lost as a kid growing up before the days of “stranger danger.” And now that she’s a mom, she’s sad her own child won’t quite know that same sense of freedom.

Beyond sadness, shock, and trauma, a lot of women are angry.

“Honestly, as a Cal Poly graduate, it's embarrassing that my alma mater botched it,” says Carla James, who attended the school the fall after Smart went missing. 

“She disappeared on my birthday, so every time my birthday would roll around I would think about her and think, ‘Wow, why can't they find Kristin Smart?’”

She’s angry at Cal Poly for failing to take Smart’s roommates seriously immediately after they reported her missing, and for waiting a month before turning the case over to the Sheriff’s department. (In 1998, the state signed into law the Kristin Smart Campus Safety Act, which requires quicker and clearer communication between colleges and local law enforcement.)

Administrators at Cal Poly emailed a statement to KCRW saying they can’t speak to the thinking or decisions made by those who worked at the school during the time of Smart’s disappearance. 

A woman wearing a Kristin Smart shirt attends a candlelight vigil in April. Photo by Rick Evans. 

But that’s not all James is mad about. In addition to being accused of raping and killing Smart, prosecutors say Flores is suspected of sexually assaulting several other women since then — one in Redondo Beach and two in Los Angeles, according to the LA Police Department. 

James says it makes her sick that Flores was able to allegedly hurt other women, and no one stopped it.

“[The burden is] always put on us to be the ones to have that situational awareness and look over your shoulder,” she says. “You know, don't be distracted when you're walking to your car, walk with a friend, call when you get home. Guy friends don't do that. They don't think about it.”

She wants Smart's story to reach more boys, including her two teenage sons, and help them become better allies when it comes to noticing warning signs and preventing sexual assault.

“The men of this next generation, open your eyes, dudes, and pay attention. The women out there, we can't do it by ourselves.”

Paul Flores is now in San Luis Obispo County Jail, behind bars without bail, four miles from where he walked Kristin Smart home 25 years ago. He’s awaiting a trial that women like Carla James and Amanda Cochoran and Jasmine Armstrong will undoubtedly follow.