'Prime suspect' arrested in 1996 disappearance of student

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FILE - This undated photo released by the FBI shows Kristin Smart, the California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo student who disappeared in 1996. The San Luis Obispo County sheriff plans a major announcement Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in the nearly 25-year mystery of the disappearance of Smart. (FBI via AP, File)

LOS ANGELES – The longtime suspect in the 25-year-old disappearance of California college student Kristin Smart was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of murder and his father was booked in jail as an accessory to the crime.

Paul Flores, 44, who was the last person seen with Smart on the California Polytechnic State University campus in San Luis Obispo before she vanished in 1996, was taken into custody in the Los Angeles area. His father, Ruben Flores, 80, was arrested at his Arroyo Grande home, where sheriff’s investigators conducted their latest search for evidence.

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said the arrest warrants were issued after a search of the elder Flores' home last month using ground-penetrating radar and cadaver dogs. He said evidence was found linked to the killing of Smart but they had not yet located her body.

“Until we return Kristin to (her family) this is not over," Parkinson said. "We have committed to them that we are not going to stop until it has been recovered no matter what the cost, no matter what the time.”

Smart, 19, of Stockton, vanished May 25, 1996, while returning to her dorm at Cal Poly after an off-campus party. She was last seen with Flores, a student at the school at the time, who had offered to take her home.

Flores has been under suspicion almost from the start, but the case has picked up steam in the past couple years. New witnesses came forward and warrants allowed investigators to intercept and monitor Paul Flores' phone and text messages and search his own home, along with those of his mother, father and sister that turned up new evidence, Parkinson said, though he declined to offer details because search warrants are sealed.

Smart’s family issued a statement saying it was a bittersweet day they had long waited for and a first step toward bringing their daughter home.

“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,” they said. “The knowledge that a father and son, despite our desperate pleas for help, could have withheld this horrible secret for nearly 25 years, denying us the chance to lay our daughter to rest, is an unrelenting and unforgiving pain.”