Two professional dog handlers for human-remains detection took the stand on Tuesday in the People v. Flores murder trial.
Paul Flores, 45, is being charged with the murder of Kristin Smart. His father, 81-year-old Ruben Flores is charged with accessory to murder after the fact. The two were arrested in April 2021, and their trials began July 18.
Dog handler Adella Morris continued her cross examination from Monday afternoon.
Morris was called to Cal Poly in 1996 to assist with the Smart case, where officers asked her to have her dogs search the Santa Lucia Residence Hall.
Her two dogs alerted separately on the left side of Paul Flores’ dorm room, indicating that they had both picked up a scent of human remains.
On Tuesday, Paul Flores’ defense attorney, Robert Sanger, continued his cross examination from Monday afternoon by asking Morris about the volatile organic compounds that need to be in the air for dogs to detect the scent of human remains.
Morris agreed that “something has to be present” for the dogs to detect the scent, though there is no scientifically clear answer as to what it is.
Sanger then added that those molecules dissipate over time, although Morris wasn’t able to say exactly how long those compounds stay in the air after a dead body has been removed from a scene.
Sanger and Morris both agreed that the time those compounds stay in the air could be affected by the size of the thing that left them there, the size of the space it’s in, and whether or not the space has been altered.
Sanger then asked Morris if she was aware that officers had been in the room three days before the search, implying that they could’ve brought traces of a “crime scene” into Paul Flores’ dorm room.
He tried establishing the possibility that the dogs were actually smelling some “residual deposit” accidentally left there by officers three days prior to the search and not by an actual body.
Morris did not know if officers had been in the room when she did the search, so she was not able to speak to that, and only knew that “my dog found the scent that she’s trained to locate.”
Ruben Flores’ attorney, Harold Mesick, then questioned Morris about how she’s able to interpret her dog’s body language.
Morris explained that her dogs exhibit behaviors such as slowing down or changing their breathing to indicate that they’re interested in certain areas, and that their trained alerts indicate that they have found the scent of human remains.
Mesick called Morris’ work in this case “unsuccessful,” since she didn’t actually find remains.
“In 1996, the Kristin Smart case, you found no body,” Mesick said.
“That is correct,” Morris said.
Next on the stand was Wayne Behrens, who also participated in the search in 1996 as a dog handler.
According to Behrens, the County of San Luis Obispo requested aid from the Office of Emergency Services, which in turn contacted the California Rescue Dog Association. The association asked for teams to respond to the search.
Behrens testified that his dog, Sierra, was the first to enter the Santa Lucia building that day, and that she alerted the left side of Paul Flores’ dorm room.
On Tuesday, Behrens said that he recommended that Morris come in with her dogs to do a second blind test in Santa Lucia.
Morris’ testimony indicated that she ran two blind tests with her two dogs, and that both of them also alerted to the left side of Paul Flores’ dorm.
Behrens said that, initially, Sierra had shown interest in one of the windows from the outside of Santa Lucia.
He later found out that the window was approximately opposite the hallway to Room 128, and that the wind was flowing through the dorms and out the windows, potentially carrying scent outwards.
However, he was not able to say exactly which window it was.
During his cross examination, Sanger also questioned Behrens about the chemistry behind what volatile organic compounds dogs smell that lets them identify it as human remains.
Like Morris, Behrens said that he could not speak to what the compounds are. Behrens said there’s a current debate among scientists regarding what it actually is that the dogs are smelling when they identify human remains.
On Tuesday, Behrens said that he and Morris drove down to Cal Poly together from the Bay Area with their three dogs in the same car.
He said that he discussed the events of the day with Morris on the way back, but that he had no recollection of Morris’ discussion with her colleague that she had over email before filing her report.
On Monday, Sanger referred to this interaction as potential for “implicit bias” in Morris’ report.
Sanger also asked Behrens if he was aware that officers had been in the room three days before the search, again implying his theory that the dogs may have been alerting to some sort of residue that officers brought with them from a crime scene.
Like Morris, Behrens was not aware of anyone being in the room prior to the search, and was not able to speak to that question.
Judge Jeniffer O’Keefe addressed the courtroom on Tuesday and said that proceedings will not resume until Wednesday, Aug. 24.