“Your Own Backyard” podcaster Chris Lambert sits in front of a poster of Kristin Smart with family members nearby on Oct. 18, 2022, the day a jury found Paul Flores guilty of murder in Smart’s 1996 disappearance at Cal Poly.
“Your Own Backyard” podcaster Chris Lambert sits in front of a poster of Kristin Smart with family members nearby on Oct. 18, 2022, the day a jury found Paul Flores guilty of murder in Smart’s 1996 disappearance at Cal Poly. Credit: Laura Dickinson / San Luis Obispo Tribune photo

Five years ago, when Orcutt resident Chris Lambert began research into the Kristin Smart case that would become the “Your Own Backyard” podcast, he didn’t know what to expect. He definitely didn’t anticipate seeing an arrest anytime soon, and he didn’t expect Paul Flores’ conviction for Smart’s murder or his 25-years-to-life prison sentence.

“The past five years of my life have been about waiting for some sort of validation that this isn’t just a random guy that we grabbed and said he did it,” Lambert told The Tribune. “This is a bad person who’s done a lot of bad things to a lot of people.”

Lambert said Monterey County Superior Court Judge Jennifer O’Keefe’s words to Flores — calling him a “cancer to society” and that he deserves to spend the rest of his life behind bars — were an unexpected weight off his shoulders that he didn’t realize he was holding onto since Flores’ conviction in October.

He didn’t expect the judge to be so frank and only hoped that she would make at least one comment to him about what he’s been convicted of.

“I felt like I’ve been holding my breath for the last five months,” Lambert said. “She left no question for any rational person that she knows beyond a reasonable doubt that, just like the jury did, Paul Flores is responsible for Kristin Smart’s death. Essentially, it all came down to that moment for me. It was like that is everything I’ve been waiting for.”

Podcaster: Judge’s Words to Paul Flores Were ‘Validating’

O’Keefe’s words were validating, Lambert said, because throughout the entire legal process against Flores, his defense attorney, Robert Sanger, had accused Lambert of designing his podcast to convict Flores in order to capitalize and gain fame from Smart’s disappearance.

“All roads led back to (Flores),” Lambert said, noting that he researched other suspects like Scott Peterson, the man convicted of the 2002 murder of his pregnant wife in Modesto who lived in San Luis Obispo at the time of Smart’s disappearance. He said the judge’s words made him feel like he “was on the right path all along.”

But covering the trial while routinely being mischaracterized by the defense wasn’t easy, Lambert said, adding that it was difficult to be in a position where he couldn’t speak up for himself in the courtroom.

Navigating the court hallways was difficult, he said, because he was pretty sure the jurors knew who he was as he sat in the gallery, but they couldn’t acknowledge one another.

“It was like we were in a classroom together for a semester, but we were never allowed to talk to each other,” Lambert said. “We passed each other in the hallways, and I just thought, these people can see on my face that I’m not that type of person.”

He said he and the jurors never even made eye contact in the hallways for fear of jeopardizing the trial and said it was liberating to finally get to learn one another’s names and talk like normal human beings.

He appreciated that the jurors took deliberations seriously, he said, and has interviewed several for his final episodes of the podcast.

Conviction Reignites Hopes of Finding Smart’s Body, Lambert Says

Since the verdict, Lambert has been able to finally reconnect with the Smart family after nearly two years under the gag order. When he first met Kristin’s mother, Denise Smart, at a bench near Dinosaur Caves park, Lambert was shy and the Smarts didn’t have the same hope they do now. He’s been reminded of that listening back to his old tapes.

“In 2019, the first time I sat down with them, they were like, ‘This is just our lives. We’ve been dragged along for so long,’” Lambert said. “To hear that back and be reminded that that’s the mindset that everybody kind of had just a few years ago to now where we’re at having, again, the judge’s words to Paul before she put him away, who ever could have seen that result coming?”

Chris Lambert, center, with Denise Smart, right, and another member of the Jam Fam on Feb. 20, 2019, at the bench in Margo Dodd Park in Shell Beach.
Chris Lambert, center, with Denise Smart, right, and another member of the Jam Fam on Feb. 20, 2019, at the bench in Margo Dodd Park in Shell Beach. Credit: Photo courtesy of Chris Lambert

The Smarts and Lambert needed each other, but the gag order on the case made it extremely difficult, Lambert said.

The moment they could speak to each other again was filled with “overwhelming love,” and their relationship goes beyond just what he did in his podcast, Lambert said.

“These are really, really some of my closest friends,” he said.

Flores’ conviction reignited the hope the Smart family had lost, Lambert said, and he holds onto that same hope that Smart will one day be found.

Podcaster Connected with Kristin Smart Case on Personal Level, He Says

A quiet and reserved person, Lambert said it’s been an adjustment to have people recognize him in public and thank him for the work he’s done on the Smart case. An adjustment it’s been, but a beautiful one, he said. Lambert is typically not one to accept thanks and often shrugged it off as people just wanting to be nice.

He said he’s had to unlearn that and allow himself to connect with community members and listeners on a raw and emotional level.

“I especially never expected people to get emotional at the sight of me,” Lambert said. “I’ve learned that the podcast had such a profound impact on members of the community that, when they see me, they sincerely want to stop and like, let me know how much it means to them.”

His podcast has had a profound personal impact as well, Lambert said. He never met Kristin Smart, but said he feels like he knows her through all the moments he’s shared with her loved ones.

Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo student Kristin Smart
Kristin Smart

“I would be driving somewhere, and in my heart it felt like I was on my way to see Kristin. And then I would have this sinking moment where I realized, Oh, that’s right, Kristen won’t be there,” Lambert said. “I connected to her on a very personal level, and that was because so many people remember her so strongly.”

That connection changed him as a person, he said. He had to learn to be more assertive — and sometimes aggressive — to ensure it was clear that Smart’s voice had to be the priority in the story and that Flores took her voice away from her, he said.

Prioritizing Smart’s voice is why Lambert has turned down opportunities to make a series or movie about his work, because the story isn’t about him and the goal of the podcast was never for fame. The goal was to document Smart’s story, and now it’s to continue to pursue justice for Smart by finding her body and giving her family the proper closure they deserve, he said.

Will ‘Your Own Background’ Podcast Have a Season 2?

As a musician, Lambert typically released an album annually, but since the podcast began, he’s been working on fine-tuning the same one for the past five years. He said he hopefully will release it soon.

Since the October verdict, Lambert has released a one-minute update and a three-minute teaser for the conclusion of his podcast. It may be the last time he produces something for the “Your Own Backyard” podcast, so he’s been conducting interviews, writing and editing for the past five months.

He didn’t want to release an episode between the verdict and sentencing, he said, because he didn’t want to give Sanger any reason to twist something he published into an argument for a new trial. So he’s quietly worked, and the conclusion is coming.

“You have to remember that this is a documentary and documentaries don’t just happen in a couple of days,” he said. “My time now is just about being very careful and patient and putting together the best closing that I can. Because for me, this is the end of this portion of the story.”

The finale may be split into two episodes, and it also may not be the official finale, he said.

Season 2 of the “Your Own Backyard” podcast would come only if there is movement in Los Angeles County prosecuting Flores for the several rapes he’s been accused of there or to focus on finding Smart’s body.

Lambert said he believes there are things law enforcement is working on to find her remains and others that need to be followed up on, but that the two jurisdictions — San Luis Obispo County and Los Angeles County — are “very much not on the same page.”

The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office tried to add charges related to the Los Angeles rape allegations to their case against Flores, but San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen ruled against it in July 2021. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office told The Tribune in January that it was not pursuing any rape or child pornography charges against Flores.

“I think I can be a catalyst for pushing them to get on the same page because I’ve done it before,” he said, adding that finding Smart’s body and holding Flores accountable for the alleged Los Angeles rapes is the next priority.

“I need to close this chapter. I need to put out an episode to just sort of recap everything that’s happened in the courtroom up to the end,” Lambert said. “But it’s certainly not the end of telling this story.”

Lambert said listeners should expect the conclusion in the next few weeks as he finishes interviews with people who were not allowed to talk previously.