On the morning of April 13, just hours after Paul and Ruben Flores were arrested for their alleged involvement in the disappearance and death of Kristin Smart, Michelle Mueller, a freshman at Cal Poly University, cried and lit a candle for Smart.
Smart was a freshman at Cal Poly when she disappeared in May 1996 after trying to return to her dorm after a Memorial Day weekend party. She was last seen with fellow Cal Poly freshman Paul Flores, who reportedly said he would walk with Smart to his Muir Hall dorm.
Now 44, Paul Flores is charged with first degree murder, although Smart’s body has not been found. She was pronounced dead in 2002. Paul Flores’ 80-year-old father, Ruben, is charged with accessory to murder after the fact. Both pleaded not guilty and Ruben Flores was released on $50,000 bail Wednesday.
Even before the arrests, however, Smart’s name remained familiar to a generation of residents across the community and on campus. The Stockton native spent just one school year in San Luis Obispo, but the passage of a quarter century has only deepened fears and fascination around her disappearance and presumed death.
Mueller, 19, said she first became interested in Smart’s case the summer before her freshman year at Cal Poly. As she gathered information about her future college, Mueller said Smart’s name came up repeatedly.
“I feel like Kristin Smart’s story is like a reminder, especially to college-aged women, that we have to be careful and not just watch out for ourselves – we have to be careful with people. to each other,” Mueller said.
Walk the same halls
Her interest in the case mostly involved casual discussions with family members and light research, but she later got her dorm assignment.
Mueller was to live in Santa Lucia Hall, one of the dormitories commonly referred to as the “red bricks”. This is the dormitory where Paul Flores lived.
At a press conference the week Paul and Ruben Flores were arrested, San Luis Obispo District Attorney Dan Dow said the Santa Lucia dorm was the original crime scene. This is where prosecutors allege Paul Flores killed Smart amid rape or attempted rape.
In Santa Lucia, Mueller said Smart’s story had become an “urban legend.” During a group chat with several girls in his dorm, some women who live on the first floor didn’t even want to talk about Smart.
But Smart’s story is on all of their minds; all the women are careful not to walk around the red bricks alone at night.
“There are no lights, there are no cameras, it’s like pitch black,” Mueller said. “There is nothing.”
Students on campus, almost all of whom were unborn when Smart disappeared, relate to and sympathize with Smart’s story.
Bella Giannetti, 21, a student at Cal Poly, lived in Muir Hall her freshman year. Living in the same dorm as Smart, Giannetti said his resident advisor made sure to remind him and the other women on his floor when it was Smart’s birthday.
Almost everyone in the room had planned to commemorate the date, Giannetti said. The students lit candles. They reflected on Smart and celebrated who she was.
Throughout Gianetti’s years at Cal Poly, Smart was a constant topic of conversation among fellow students. Having physical reminders of her all over campus helped keep her memory alive. It also served as a constant reminder of the lack of safety felt by women on campus.
“To constantly see where she was last seen was daunting, especially when we still didn’t know what happened,” Giannetti said.
Mueller said she was very disappointed with the university’s response throughout the case. In a letter she wrote to Cal Poly President Jefferey Armstrong, Mueller called attention to the continued fear of women on campus for their safety. But without any confirmation from the university about her letter, Mueller said she felt like she was “talking in circles.”
Matt Lazier, director of media relations for Cal Poly, said that in all cases of a student’s death, the university works with the family to respect their wishes. He said administrators spoke to the Smart family about honoring him on campus.
Honor, not blame
Cameron Jones, a lecturer in the history department at Cal Poly, was born and raised in San Luis Obispo. Smart’s story, while frequently discussed by students, is less typically a conversation among faculty members, he said.
He said he was keen to talk about Smart to his students, especially in conversations about gender-based violence.
“As part of the culture of silence, it is easy to reject people; it’s hard to dismiss Kristin Smart,” Jones said.
In 1996 and the following years, Jones said much of the community discourse on the case centered on Smart – and hit him as victim-blaming. He believes this delayed solving the mystery of her disappearance.
The night she disappeared, Smart was at a party and other students described her as drunk. But in a college town like San Luis Obispo, it would be amazing to find a weekend night where the students weren’t having house parties.
Jones said Smart’s behavior was “typical for a 19-year-old” and the focus on her behavior hurt who should have been blamed for the crime.
Longtime San Luis Obispo resident Heather Todd, 44, was also accused by the victim early in the case.
There, too, she said, there was an “unnerving fear” among the women of San Luis Obispo. Todd said she ran in the same circles as Smart, although she never knew her personally. She was a student at Cuesta College at the time of Smart’s disappearance and has been following the case ever since.
Todd also worked with Paul Flores at a local gas station and recounted an incident at a party where, she said, he stalked and harassed her all night. She said it was not out of place.
“No one here is surprised, no one is ever surprised in all the stories you’ve read about Paul Flores,” Todd said. “Nobody says, ‘Oh, but he was such a nice boy. Nobody says that. Everyone says, ‘Yes, I see that, I’m not surprised.’ »
It wasn’t until about five years ago that Todd and Jones noticed a shift in public opinion around Smart and his case.
With renewed interest in the case on social networks, amplified in 2019 by the popular podcast Your Own Backyard, conversations around Smart have become more personal and friendly. Rather than blaming her, community members started speaking up for her, Todd said.
“Most missing persons cases somehow leave a community with something unfinished,” Todd said. “A community doesn’t forget, and it’s helped (with) billboards and (that) there have been a number of people who are really committed to keeping this alive in people’s memories.”
“In Our Hearts and Minds”
Joe Daoust, better known as Lightning Joe to his customers and members of the community, owns Lightning Joe’s Guitar Heaven on Branch Street in Arroyo Grande. A few hundred yards from his business is a billboard with Smart’s face, contact numbers to share information about the case, and a $75,000 reward.
This billboard has stood in front of Daoust’s business for more than two decades. He said it served as a reminder to the community.
“Living on the street from a billboard and walking beside it pretty much every day…always has the whole situation in our hearts and minds,” Daoust said.
On the Central Coast, it is clear that this is a widespread feeling, even after 25 years.
Following:Decade passes; the pain persists
When Mueller heard the news of Paul and Ruben Flores’ arrest and lit a single candle for Smart, she began planning a vigil in Smart’s honor.
“I felt like I had to do that, it kind of felt like I owed him that respect, you know, like I owed him at least that,” Mueller said.
She led the vigil that evening.
Mueller spread the word on social media and said she was overwhelmed by the response.
About 90 people showed up on the lawn between Santa Lucia Hall and Muir Hall, the last place Smart was seen with Paul Flores. Mueller said several people have spoken about the personal impact Smart and her story has had on them.
Mueller left the vigil memorial on the lawn to serve as a reminder to all students. It included flowers and personal notes from attendees honoring Smart.
“I wanted to make sure I protected (the memorial) and there was some, which I’m mostly proud of, like, there was an ongoing sense of respect from the campus,” Mueller said. “Students passed by and, you know, share it, the respect doesn’t touch or bother it, but recognize it.”
The landscapers who maintain the residence lawns spoke with Mueller and told him they would respect where he stayed.
More than a week later, the small memorial band of notes and flowers still stands to commemorate Smart and the lasting impact she had on Cal Poly students who weren’t even alive when she is dead.