Nearly two decades after the parents of long-missing Cal Poly student Kristin Smart filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the last man seen with her, the civil case remains stagnant as investigators continue to work on the unsolved 1996 disappearance.
On Monday, an annual progress hearing was held in San Luis Obispo Superior Court in the civil case. As in years past, the court ruled that the wrongful-death case against former Arroyo Grande resident Paul Flores could not proceed while the criminal investigation is active.
Law enforcement agencies are not required to release documents in ongoing criminal investigations.
Smart, who would have turned 38 this month, was 19 years old when she disappeared near the Cal Poly campus in 1996. Flores, an Arroyo Grande High School graduate, was the last person seen with her and has long been considered by local law enforcement to be a person of interest in the case.
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No charges have been filed in the case, and Smart’s body has never been recovered. She was declared presumed dead in 2002.
Stan and Denise Smart of Stockton filed the wrongful-death lawsuit against Flores in 1997 that included a subpoena for all San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office records into the investigation.
The county has since remained a party in the case and has fought the release of any documents related to the ongoing criminal investigation.
In 2003, a San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge ruled that the necessity of preserving the confidentiality of the criminal investigation outweighed the Smarts’ interest in the civil suit and postponed accepting any discovery in the case, according to court records.
The court ordered an annual review of the criminal case, including a sealed declaration by a Sheriff’s Office detective to ensure that investigators remain working on the case.
In late 2007, another San Luis Obispo judge lifted the stay and ordered that the Sheriff’s Office provide a log of content in the criminal case file.
The county challenged that ruling in appellate court, which overruled the judge and again said the records would remain sealed as long as the investigation remained ongoing.
The review process on the status of the investigation has continued each year since.
Neither the Smart family nor Flores were at the hearing Monday, but Deputy County Counsel Ann Duggan said Tuesday that Superior Court Judge Martin Tangeman ruled that the Smart family lawsuit would again be stalled while the criminal investigation remains ongoing.
Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Cipolla said Tuesday that he could not comment on where the investigation stands or what was stated in the court report.
“This is an open and active investigation,” Cipolla said. “This has never been considered a cold case, never been closed, and we can’t comment on our investigative tactics.”
Flores’ listed attorney, David Tedesco, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Tangeman set the next progress hearing for Feb. 1, 2016, in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.