Paul Flores appears in San Luis Obispo Superior Court in August 2021
Paul Flores appears in San Luis Obispo Superior Court in August 2021 during his preliminary hearing with his attorney Robert Sanger. Flores faces trial on charges related to the disappearance of Cal Poly student Kristin Smart in 1996.  (David Middlecamp / San Luis Obispo Tribune file photo)

A San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge ordered Paul Flores to stand trial for murder in the 1996 disappearance of Cal Poly freshman Kristin Smart, a major step forward in case that has transfixed the Central Coast for more than 25 years.

On Wednesday, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen announced in court that after a 22-day preliminary hearing, he had found sufficient evidence to move the case toward trial.

The case against Paul Flores’ father, 80-year-old Ruben Flores, will also advance.

He is charged with accessory after the fact, accused of helping his son conceal Smart’s body under the deck of Ruben Flores’ Arroyo Grande home and recently removing the remains, which have never been found.

Paul Flores, 44, is the last person known to have seen then-19-year-old Smart alive after walking her back from a party toward the Cal Poly campus dorms on May 24, 1996.

In his ruling, Van Rooyen explained that he has a “strong suspicion” that Smart was murdered and buried under Ruben Flores’ deck.

“Whether there’s proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that’s for a jury to decide,” van Rooyen said.

What Happens Next in the Kristin Smart Murder Case?

Paul Flores, left, and his father Ruben Flores

Paul Flores, left, and his father Ruben Flores, right, will face criminal trial for charges related to the 1996 disappearance of Kristin Smart.  (San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Department photos)

Wednesday’s ruling moves the case from the preliminary hearing into the pretrial phase.

The District Attorney’s Office will now file what’s called the “information,” or a court filing that lists the charges and basic circumstances of the alleged crime, similar to a criminal complaint.

The two co-defendants will then appear in court for an in-person arraignment on the information scheduled for Oct. 20, when they may again enter a plea. A tentative trial date will be set at that hearing.

That will kick off a lengthy process that could take up to a year or more, according to Jeff Stein, a local criminal defense attorney for more than 40 years and past president of the SLO Bar Association who was interviewed by The Tribune on Tuesday about possible outcomes in the case.

Kristin Smart was last seen walking back to her dorm from an off-campus party on May 25, 1996. She was 19 and finishing her freshman year at Cal Poly. Courtesy photo

“Certainly I would expect many months, and it’s not unusual for it to take many years,” Stein said. “There’s a huge amount of discovery (in the case).”

During the pre-trial phase, both the prosecution and defense will continue to gather and turn over to each other “discovery,” or possible evidence in the case, as well as continuing to interview witnesses and locating possible expert witnesses to testify at trial.

The period will be punctuated by routine court hearings called pre-trial conferences in order to give the court updates on the status of proceedings. Once the trial date nears, a readiness conference will be held to report whether the parties are prepared for trial.

At any point during this time, either defendant could “plead out,” or enter a guilty or no contest plea to the charges. Or, should prosecutors offer a reduced charge in exchange for a plea or other information, the defendants could accept or reject that offer.

It is not known whether any offers have been made to either defendant.

Ruben Flores appears in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, during a preliminary hearing for him and his son, Paul Flores. Dave Minsky SANTA MARIA TIMES

The pre-trial timeframe could be prolonged by a number of factors, including if the defense motions for a change of venue, given the high local publicity around the case. Defense attorney Robert Sanger mentioned in court in April that could be a possibility.

If so, San Luis Obispo County cases have historically been heard in Monterey, Santa Barbara or Kern counties, Stein said.

Requests for changes in venue have historically followed surveys conducted by the prosecution and defense to determine county residents’ awareness of a case and their thoughts about it. Stein said the last change in venue survey he was aware of was conducted by phone.

Given the length of the preliminary hearing — which usually includes only a fraction of the number of witnesses and evidence featured in a trial — a trial in the Kristin Smart case has the potential to take several months if not more.

In the meantime and through the trial, Paul Flores will remain in custody at the San Luis Obispo County Jail without bail.

If convicted, Paul Flores could face life in prison.

If convicted of the charge against him, Ruben Flores faces up to three years in jail. He remains out of custody after posting $50,000 bail in April.

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