Kristin Smart, the California college student who disappeared in 1996, was killed during an attempted rape, and the father of the man who was charged this week with murdering her helped hide her body, prosecutors said on Wednesday.
Paul Flores, who was the last person to see Ms. Smart alive and whom investigators had declared in recent months to be a “prime suspect” in the case, was arrested at his home in the San Pedro section of Los Angeles on Tuesday and was charged with murder, the authorities said.
His father, Ruben Flores, was arrested at his home in Arroyo Grande, Calif., on Tuesday and was charged with being an accessory after the fact, said Ian Parkinson, the San Luis Obispo County sheriff.
Dan Dow, the San Luis Obispo County district attorney, shared details of the investigation at a news conference on Wednesday.
“It is alleged that Mr. Flores caused the death of Kristin Smart while in the commission of or attempted rape,” Mr. Dow said during the news conference, referring to Paul Flores.
He added that “the allegation against Ruben is that he helped to conceal Kristin’s body after the murder was committed.”
The men, who have yet to enter a plea, are to be arraigned on Thursday morning, Mr. Dow said.
“These charges mark a major milestone,” Mr. Dow said, adding that “today we mark the very first move to bring justice to Kristin Smart, her family and the entire community of San Luis Obispo County.”
Ms. Smart, 19, was a student at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo when she vanished as she was walking back to her dorm room from an off-campus party on May 25, 1996.
Paul Flores, 44, who was a Cal Poly student at the time, has denied any involvement in her disappearance. But the Sheriff’s Office, after previously describing him as a person of interest in their investigation, began to refer to him in recent months as a “prime suspect” in the case.
Asked on Wednesday if he knew where Ms. Smart was killed, Mr. Dow said that “the last place where Kristin was seen was close to the dorms and near Mr. Flores’s dorm.” He added, “We certainly believe that Mr. Flores’s dorm room was a crime scene.”
Ms. Smart’s family had her declared legally dead in 2002. Her remains have never been found.
In March, the Sheriff’s Office said it had obtained a warrant to search for evidence at Ruben Flores’s residence, and they used cadaver dogs and ground-penetrating radar to canvass the property. Additional evidence related to Ms. Smart’s case was discovered at the site, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
The authorities had previously searched the homes of both Ruben Flores and Paul Flores. In February 2020, investigators executed search warrants at four locations in California and Washington State and recovered “some items of interest,” Tony Cipolla, a spokesman for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office, said at the time.
Sheriff Parkinson said on Tuesday that the search warrants were sealed and that he could not discuss what evidence had been found. On Wednesday, Mr. Dow declined to elaborate on what the new evidence was.
“What I can tell you,” he said, “is that significant new information has come in to the Sheriff’s Office that we’ve reviewed over the last two years, and some very important information just a month ago. We’ve got physical evidence, we have witness statements — things that, in our view, in the totality, have brought us to the point where we believe we can go forward and prosecute Mr. Flores for the murder of Kristin Smart.”
Robert Sanger, a lawyer for Paul Flores, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
Asked about the charges on Wednesday, Harold Mesick, a lawyer for Ruben Flores, said, “I don’t believe there is any evidence, any objective physical evidence that my client has committed any crime, and I certainly don’t believe he has sufficient evidence to convict my client of any crime, primarily because my client has not committed any crime.”
Paul Flores was booked on Tuesday at the San Luis Obispo County jail, where he was being held without bail, the sheriff said. Ruben Flores was also booked at the jail, with bond set at $250,000, according to jail records.
The sheriff said that, after the arrests, he had turned over the case to the San Luis Obispo County district attorney’s office.
Mr. Dow said that he could not charge Paul Flores with rape because the statute of limitations had expired.
“But the allegation that he was committing or attempting to commit a rape when he killed her is the basis for which we are able to file first-degree felony murder charges,” he said.
At the news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Dow asked for the public’s help “in providing any information about this case or information on other potential crimes believed to have been perpetrated by Paul Ruben Flores, including assaults or other acts.”