Content warning: This article mentions sexual assault.
After experiencing half of her first year at college from home, history junior Michelle Mueller received her housing assignment in December 2020. It was then that Mueller found out she would be living in Santa Lucia Hall, the same hall that housed Paul Flores 26 years ago.
As a survivor herself, Mueller said she felt deeply connected to Kristin Smart, a Cal Poly freshman who went missing in 1996. Paul Flores is now on trial, accused of murdering Smart during the commission of rape, then getting help from his father, Ruben Flores, to bury her body.
After Paul and Ruben Flores were arrested in 2021, Mueller caught the attention of national outlets and the Cal Poly administration as she vocalized issues of sexual assault and campus safety at Cal Poly to this day.
“I had to be the one that had to go and be on TV for them to actually take notice and … actually realize, ‘oh, we may have an issue,’ Mueller said. “That is really concerning for me.”
The disappearance of Kristin Smart
Outside a house party in 1996, two Cal Poly students noticed 19-year-old Kristin Smart lying down near the driveway. Concerned, they helped her walk back to campus.
Now, 26 years later, those students are testifying in the murder trial where a jury will decide – after years of public suspicion – if fellow student Paul Flores is guilty for the crime.
Former Cal Poly freshman Kristin Smart’s disappearance has echoed beyond the Cal Poly community, leading people to ask questions of what exactly occurred the night Smart went missing – and what has happened in the investigation since.
Paul Flores, now 45, is the last known person to have seen Smart. Her body has yet to be found.
Media such as the “Your Own Backyard” podcast helped resurface the circumstances of Smart’s disappearance with witnesses and former students voicing their observations. As a result, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office gathered enough evidence in 2021 to charge Flores with Smart’s murder and his father, Ruben Flores, with helping to bury Smart.
From when Smart went missing Memorial Day weekend in 1996, to when the trial began in July of this year, her case has revealed to the public, especially Cal Poly students and faculty, the reality of ongoing safety concerns on college campuses.
Smart went missing May 25, 1996 after attending an off-campus party on Crandall Way. Visibly incapacitated and unable to walk alone, two students, Cheryl Manzer and Tim Davis, helped walk Smart back to her Muir Hall dorm room.
Paul Flores approached the group and volunteered to take her back to the residence halls as he lived in the neighboring Santa Lucia Residence Hall. Flores is the last known person to see Smart, claiming she walked the rest of the way to her dorm by herself, and he returned to his.
Now, the prosecution argues that Paul Flores murdered Smart in his dorm during the commission of rape, and his father Ruben Flores helped him bury Smart in the backyard of their home in Arroyo Grande.
Before Smart attended the Crandall party, she and her friend, Margarita Campos, went to a different party before. The two disagreed about returning to campus and split– Campos wanted to study for an upcoming test while Smart wanted to search for other parties.
Campos has “replayed” the moment she parted ways with her friend on the night of May 25.
“You know, hindsight is 20/20,” Campos said. “I shouldn’t have left her by herself, and she shouldn’t have left me by myself.”
Jennifer Mederios lived across the hall from Kristin Smart at the time of her disappearance. Her concern grew as days progressed, and Mederios called local police before being redirected to the Cal Poly Police Department, which has jurisdiction over university property.
When calling the campus police, Mederios was met with little concern from them, as they suspected she had just gone away for Memorial Day weekend without telling anyone.
“People do things like this all the time,” Mederios recalled police telling her.
The Cal Poly Police Department would not begin investigating until four days after Smart’s disappearance. Flores’ dorm would not be inspected until June 29, 1996, after students had moved out for the school year and rooms had been cleaned.
Smart’s sudden disappearance was out-of-character, raising concern from her close family and friends. Smart, the eldest of three, would engage in weekly Sunday calls with her family. The day before she went missing, Kristin left her mom a voicemail about good news to share on their Sunday call, a call she never made.
“Kristin Smart was not only present but involved — everything you would want from a sibling,” Matt, Smart’s younger brother, said.
Steven Fleming, another Cal Poly freshman at the time, bonded with Smart over their height and how they both loved sports. A close friend of Smart’s, Fleming described her in court as someone with an open and kind personality.
“She was just lively,” Fleming said. “That was the good thing about her, she was alive.”
‘Protecting each other’: What new students take away from the Kristin Smart case
While there are many different media outlets covering the Smart case, incoming Cal Poly students arriving to the area are often uninformed about Smart’s story.
From Orange County, nutrition freshman Ellie Khorsahadi attributes her distance from San Luis Obispo to being unaware of Kristin Smart’s disappearance. She first heard Smart’s name in a quick overview mentioned during a sexual harassment training of her online SLO Days orientation.
“You just got to be smart with your decisions and you got to go on with daily life,” Khorashadi said.
University Spokesperson Matt Lazier wrote in an email to Mustang News that the reason the Smart case has not been heavily covered in training at Cal Poly is due to a request from the Smart Family to not do so.
However, Mueller said her exchanges with Denise Smart, Kristin’s mother, contradict with administration.
“She [Denise Smart] had told me that they have been ready,” Mueller said. “They’ve been trying to get them to honor her from the get-go.”
Journalism freshman Sam Basich said he was unaware of Smart’s case until Mustang News reached out to him about it. This grew his curiosity and led him to a quick Wikipedia search. He was surprised at what he found.
“Why are we even talking about it?” Basich wondered when learning that Smart’s disappearance happened 26 years ago. “But some of her remains have been found now; they’re finding pieces of the case. It’s unbelievable to me.”
While Smart’s body has yet to be found, according to the prosecution of the case, blood stains found on Paul Flores’ dorm mattress and in the soil of his father’s backyard, indicate traces of Smart’s presence.
Basich was surprised at how long this case has been investigated for – and how long it took them to start.
“It was just crazy to me that it took that long for the developments when her family is just kind of sitting there scratching their heads for so long,” Basich said.
Basich also consulted his family about the Smart disappearance. Sam’s mom, Jennifer Basich, said she did not hear any mention of Smart’s case during parent welcoming sessions.
“I do wish they had brought up protecting each other and really looking out for each other,” Jennifer Basich said. “They didn’t have to dwell on it, because it’s such a sad thing. But that would have been nice.”
Campus safety was a factor that she considered when helping Sam determine where he would end up going to college. It was still a concern even though he identifies as male, she said.
The two organized a “system,” where Sam knows to pick up the phone from any of his female friends and to walk them home or make sure they walk home in a group.
During SLO Days, Jennifer Basich came to pick up her son from the yakʔitʸutʸu dorms in the middle of the night since he didn’t bring all his bedding with him. Orientation students, or ‘Daysies,’ are required to stay on campus during the programming. Jennifer Basich knew this, so she said she found it odd that no one tried to stop her from picking up her son – who she was waiting outside in the dark for.
Jennifer Basich does not recall seeing any patrols that night or any campus security.
For the school year, she hopes there are more safety protocols than what she experienced.
“I just hope they have a lot of patrols,” Jennifer Basich said. “And I just, I really hope they reach the buddy system.”
Now having general knowledge about Smart’s case, Basich said he feels “more comfortable,” saying that there has been progress in new safety measures at college campuses.
“I know campuses are much more secure now and have access to on-campus security at all times,” Basich said. “I think back then was a little bit of an anomaly.”
Kristin Smart’s legacy on campus safety
Kristin Smart’s story is not the only case of sexual assault or partner violence concerning the Cal Poly community. Five Cal Poly students are named on Cal Poly Safer’s website as a reason for the program’s creation: Kristin Smart, Rachel Newhouse, Aundria Crawford, Kristina Hogan and Laci Peterson.
Safer is a university department created in Fall 1996 to provide confidential services to people who’ve experienced sexual assault, harassment or intimate partner violence. Safer also offers violence prevention education to other campus organizations.
The Kristin Smart Campus Security Act was also added to the California Education Code in 1998, mandating that all public colleges have written agreements with local police departments regarding the responsibility of reporting cases involving violence against students or missing students.
In a student survey Mustang News conducted in November 2021, about 43% of respondents, 236 students, said they knew someone who had faced sexual assault or harassment at Cal Poly in the last 10 weeks. A vast majority of respondents said they felt unsafe walking on campus at night, with 94.4% of women who responded saying they felt unsafe.
About 71% of students who responded said Cal Poly is not doing enough to address sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus.
Mueller lit candles in Smart’s remembrance outside of the Red Bricks after the arrests of Paul and Ruben Flores.
“I lit a candle that morning,” Mueller said. “And personally, I started crying.”
She then wrote a letter to the editor, which was published on Mustang News on April 15, 2021.
“I cannot focus on anything else, except this, and I need to write how I’m feeling,” Mueller said. “I might explode or implode with all these emotions going on.”
Mueller was a survivor of rape before attending Cal Poly and saw herself in Kristin Smart’s shoes – as Mueller also lived in the Santa Lucia dorm where Paul Flores did 25 years prior.
“She [Smart] was a healing figure for me, going and learning about her own experience that happened 25 years ago,” Mueller said. “It still helps me process my own.”
President Jeffrey Armstrong reached out to Mueller following her letter, who invited her to meet with two other people in the administration.
Although Mueller recalls feeling great at first, this feeling didn’t last. President Armstrong left after talking with her for 15 minutes, she said.
“It was patronizing in a way,” Mueller said about the meeting. “They were just like, ‘Oh good job. Oh, so sweet. Go and speak your voice.’”
Mueller said she was frustrated. She wished that they scheduled a follow-up meeting, reporting on some sort of progress– from writing down her ideas and presenting them to committees or any action taken. Mueller did not hear back after this meeting.
“Why am I now responsible for going and telling you safety enhancements, telling you things that you need to be doing?” Mueller said.
After meeting with Armstrong, Mueller was contacted by NBC in June 2021, who knew that she met with Armstrong. According to Mueller, NBC wanted her to talk about the meeting. Her parents were worried.
“They [Mueller’s parents] were very uncomfortable– they told me if you go off and talk about your university, you go back, you could get reprimanded,” Mueller said. “Or worse, the administration is pissed off. Maybe they’ll go and seek revenge by not letting me get into classes.”
One of the safety concerns Mueller brought up were lights around campus. The meeting attendees had told Mueller that every September, they go through a “safety walk” and evaluate places to put new safety features.
However, Mueller said that they have “obviously” never done this and it shows through the stark difference in the lighting of yakʔitʸutʸu and the Red Bricks.
“There’s like lights on every frickin inch of that little area. Cameras on every single corner. And blue lights everywhere, in front of every building. Like everywhere,” Mueller said, describing the yakʔitʸutʸu dorms .
In comparison, Mueller says the Red Bricks are “pitch black.”
“The exact spot where she [Smart] went missing– pitch black,” Mueller said. “There are no lights there. Absolutely nothing if someone heard you screaming. Hopefully, they would hear you and come down.”
According to Cal Poly’s Annual Security Report data, reported sex- and dating-related crimes increased significantly from 2018 to 2020. From 2018 to 2019, reports of rape cases increased from seven to 20, Mustang News previously reported.
On-campus resources for sexual assault and intimate partner violence can be found on Safer’s website. Safer Prevention Specialist Kara Samaniego said that a toolkit on discussing sexual assault is included in Safer’s programming for parents and supporters of Cal Poly students.
“Not that parents don’t know how to have these conversations, but it can be really uncomfortable if they haven’t really thought about this yet before,” Samaniego said.
The toolkit informs the community of things like the “red zone,” a time period of increased sexual assault and violence during the first months of college. The red zone is significantly more dangerous for freshmen, according to Safer.
Cal Poly’s Campus Safety Plan 2022 also includes campus updates of what the university has done and will start to do in upcoming months to address campus safety. New changes expected to be made include hiring more police officers, implementing video cameras across campus and further communicating on educational outreach.
With the ongoing trial of Paul and Ruben Flores that has left both witnesses and jurors in tears, the memory and circumstance of Kristin Smart’s disappearance has resurfaced.
After the Flores’ arrests in April 2021, students held a candlelight vigil that night to honor Kristin Smart – outside of the red brick dorms where Smart used to live. There have also been petitions for more safety measures and community gatherings for campus safety in recent years.
Trial nearing the end
The Flores’ trial is expected to last through October. The trial’s initial delay is largely due to the lack of physical evidence, and the constant change in the investigator, from San Luis Obispo Police to the FBI.
Several expert dog handlers have testified in court to discuss their dogs’ alerts to human remains in the Smart case. From blood on Paul Flores’ dorm mattress to the soil in Ruben Flores’ backyard, a question in court remains how strong of evidence this is without a direct link to Kristin Smart.
Music and psychology sophomore Josh Tarica grew up in Atascadero and remembers learning about Kristin Smart when he was 10 years old, as his parents are Cal Poly alumni. Tarica also recalls listening to the “Your Own Backyard” podcast by Chris Lambert.
“Your Own Backyard,” was created in 2019 and has grown into a platform with 91.7K Instagram followers, as Lambert investigates Smart’s disappearance with a primary goal of helping the Smart Family find her body.
When Tarica attended Cal Poly, he didn’t learn about Smart during orientation or at school. Considering Smart’s legacy on the community, Tarcia was surprised her story was not included in the Week of Welcome awareness gallery, which brings awareness to sexual assault and similar subjects.
“I think that people that come to the San Luis community deserve to be a part of this case and to keep Kristin Smart’s legacy alive,” Tarica said.