(CNN) — The family of Kristin Smart, who was murdered in California in 1996, is hoping the guilty verdict a jury returned Tuesday against her killer will bring them some closure as her body has never been found.
“Almost three decades ago, our lives were irreparably changed on the night you disappeared. We hope this verdict helps deliver not just answers, but also a peace and sense of closure that have eluded us for 26 years,” the family said in a message to Smart in their statement following the verdict. “Not a single day goes by where you aren’t missed, remembered, loved, and celebrated.”
The family’s remarks came after a jury in California found Paul Flores, 45, guilty of first-degree murder in Smart’s killing, prosecutors said.
Flores and Smart were both freshmen attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo when she disappeared in May 1996, authorities said. Flores was the last person to see Smart alive and prosecutors argued he raped or attempted to rape Smart and then killed her in his dorm room.
Prosecutors also accused Ruben Flores, Paul Flores’ father, of helping his son move Smart’s body to his Arroyo Grande home and hiding it for a time under his deck.
In a decision by a separate jury announced Tuesday, Ruben Flores was found not guilty of being an accessory to Smart’s murder, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office said in a news release.
Although Smart’s body has not been recovered, she was declared dead in 2002.
“Without Kristin, there is no joy or victory with this verdict, we all know it did not have to be this way,” the Smart family said. “After 26 years, with today’s split verdicts, we learned that our quest for justice for Kristin will continue.”
The family thanked investigators and prosecutors for their efforts and expressed gratitude to Chris Lambert for his 2019 podcast highlighting the case, “Your Own Backyard,” which they said shined a spotlight “in our darkest hours by sharing Kristin’s voice and story.”
“Our family is comforted and strengthened by the knowledge that Kristin continues to be held in the hearts and memories of many,” the family said. “We will never be able to personally thank everyone, but please know our gratitude and love goes out to each of you who have been with us on this long, overwhelming, and emotional journey.”
Paul Flores’ conviction carries a sentence of 25 years to life in prison, prosecutors said. He is scheduled to be sentenced December 9.
Smart’s disappearance haunted small college city
The Smart family described the decades-long search for answers in the case as an “agonizingly long journey with more downs than ups.” The case haunted the small college city of San Luis Obispo in 1996.
Billboards in the community of about 47,000 residents displayed Smart’s face, asking the public for any information that could lead to clues in her case.
She was last seen near her dorm but never made it to her room, police said. Paul Flores had walked her home, prosecutors said. Her friends and family never heard from Smart again.
Nearly 25 years after she disappeared, authorities said new evidence led to the arrest of Paul and Ruben Flores in April 2021, which Smart’s family called a “bittersweet day.”
Deputy District Attorney Christopher Peuvrelle told jurors during the trial in July that searches of Ruben Flores’ house turned up soil samples that tested positive for human blood, CNN affiliate KSBY reported.
In documents filed in the case, a sheriff’s office detective stated investigators are “in possession of biological evidence that makes them believe the victim was buried underneath the defendant’s (Ruben Flores) deck at one time.”
Prosecutors believe the father and son moved the body to another location before authorities searched the property, affiliates KEYT and KRON reported.
Following his acquittal on the accessory charge Tuesday, Ruben Flores said “there is no evidence against anybody,” and he is worried about his son.
“It’s too bad the system works …. on feelings instead of facts,” Ruben Flores said.
An attorney representing Paul Flores insisted he’s innocent, saying there’s a lack evidence and witnesses.
“A bunch of conspiracy theories not backed by facts,” said attorney Robert Sanger, referring to the prosecution’s case, according to CNN affiliate KEYT.
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