Kristin Smart's mother testifies daughter struggled at Cal Poly before she went missing

The mother of the former Cal Poly student was the first witness in the trial of a father and son accused of murdering her daughter, Kristin Smart, in 1996.

Denise Smart told jurors on Thursday that the last time she heard her daughter's voice she mentioned she was having a tough time as a student at the university in San Luis Obispo, KCRA-3 reported.  

Much of the testimony centered on how Kristin was doing right before her disappearance.

Denise Smart explained her daughter felt that Cal Poly was not the right fit for her and that her freshman year was a challenge, juggling work and school.

A couple of weeks before she went missing, Denise Smart sent her daughter a "buckle up, buttercup" letter, urging Kristin not to complain about things and not to give up, KCRA-3 reported. 

Denise Smart also spoke about Kristin growing up in Stockton with her younger brother and sister. They were swimmers, and Denise Smart cried as she described how Kristin would tell her siblings that they would be going to the Olympics someday.

"When they went to the Olympic trials, she wasn’t there," Denise said. 

Denise said the last time she saw her daughter was 26 years ago on Easter.

The trial against the man who last saw Kristin – Paul Flores, then a college freshman at Cal Poly – began on Monday in Monterey County Superior Court in Salinas. Prosecutors charged him with her death just last year. 

His father, Ruben Flores, was charged as an accessory. Both men have pleaded not guilty.

Kristin’s remains have never been found and the mystery of how she vanished from the scenic campus tucked against a verdant coastal mountain range is likely to be central to the trial.

"And while the entire community banded together to search for Kristin desperately, Paul and Ruben Flores did not join in," Deputy District Attorney Christopher Peuvrelle told the jury earlier in the week. "You will hear Ruben Flores would tear down missing posters of Kristin — tore down her smiling, beautiful face — called her a ‘dirty slut,’ all while her corpse was decomposing underneath his deck."

Prosecutors maintain the younger Flores, now 45, killed the 19-year-old during an attempted rape on May 25, 1996 in his dorm room at Cal Poly, where both were first-year students. His father, now 81, allegedly helped bury the slain student behind his home in the nearby community of Arroyo Grande and later dug up the remains and moved them.

During his opening remarks, defense attorney Robert Sanger told jurors that if Paul Flores and Kristin did interact on campus over that weekend, it was brief and no attempted rape occurred.

Paul Flores had long been considered a suspect in the killing, but prosecutors only arrested him and his father in 2021 after the investigation was revived.

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson acknowledged missteps by detectives over the years and he credited a popular podcast about Smart’s disappearance called "Your Own Backyard" for helping unearth new information and inspiring witnesses to speak with investigators.

Investigators have conducted dozens of searches over two decades, but turned their attention in the past two years to Ruben Flores’ home about 12 miles south of Cal Poly in the community of Arroyo Grande.

Behind lattice work beneath the deck of his large house on a dead end street off Tally Ho Road, archaeologists working for police in March 2021 found a soil disturbance about the size of a casket and the presence of human blood, prosecutors said. The blood was too degraded to extract a DNA sample.

San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Craig Van Rooyen ordered the pair to trial after a 22-day preliminary hearing in which he found a "strong suspicion" the father and son committed the crimes they were charged with, that a grave existed under Ruben Flores’ deck and it once held Smart’s remains.

Separate juries were selected to weigh the evidence against each defendant. The trial is expected to last about four months.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.