What happened to Kristin Smart? 23 years after disappearance, a podcast looks for answers

Cal Poly student Kristin Smart went missing 23 years ago under mysterious circumstances.

At the time, freelance journalist and podcast producer Chris Lambert was a second-grader in Santa Maria.

But he still remembers the story’s significance, and how it resonated throughout the Central Coast.

Now the 31-year-old Lambert is taking a hard look into the background and aftermath of the puzzling case, which has never been solved.

So far, he’s completed five episodes of what he hopes will be an ongoing podcast that tells the story of who Smart was and the details of her disappearance on May 25, 1996, at the age of 19.

The free podcast is called “Your Own Backyard,” and it will be available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, starting Monday, Sept. 30.

The program, which took about a year and a half to create, will also be available on the website

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Cal Poly student Kristin Smart was 19 when she went missing after an off-campus party on Memorial Day weekend in 1996. Courtesy photo

“I think it’s really strange it hasn’t been solved in all these years,” Lambert said. “It started out as just an attempt to tell the story. But I believe she’s buried somewhere on the Central Coast. And I hope my podcast helps to find her.”

Who is interviewed on the podcast

Lambert spoke with more than 50 people for the podcast, he said, including Smart’s parents in Visalia, as well as friends and classmates of hers at Cal Poly, where she was a freshman at the time of her disappearance.

He cold-called many of his contacts, which he called “super uncomfortable,” and waited for them to respond if they weren’t ready to talk immediately.

Some declined. Some talked off the record. Some talked on the record. Some he’s still waiting to hear from.

The show includes parts of an audio recording of a deposition taken from Paul Flores’ father.

Paul Flores, also a Cal Poly student at the time, was the last person seen with Smart early Saturday morning on Memorial Day weekend as she walked back to her residence hall after an off-campus party.

Lambert also conducted interviews with people who currently know Flores to get a sense of who he was then and what their impressions are of him now.

Lambert hasn’t talked to Flores, who now lives in the Los Angeles area and who has been doing manual labor jobs, according to Lambert’s research.

Lambert, who doesn’t have any formal journalism training, produced a podcast over the past few years titled “Are We Okay?” It featured weekly conversations about “creativity, positivity and purposeful living.”

Chance meeting sparked the project

Lambert said he met Smart’s mother by coincidence at a memorial site in Shell Beach, where a plaque honoring her daughter is located. Denise Smart was remembering her daughter’s birthday and showed up to light a candle.

“It was a private event,” Lambert said. “I had no idea she was going to be there. She invited me to come sing with some friends and it was the four of us standing on the cliffs celebrating Kristin’s birthday.”

Lambert said they got to know each other over the next several months and stayed in touch. He later visited both Smart parents at their home in the San Joaquin Valley, where he conducted interviews over the course of a couple of days.

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The Smart family, seen here in a photo from Kristin’s childhood, have been waiting 23 years for answers. “I just pray that before we die, we’ll know (what happened to Kristin),” Denise Smart says in the podcast. Courtesy Chris Lambert

“Your kids aren’t supposed to go before you,” Denise Smart says in a preview snippet. “I just pray that before we die, we’ll know (what happened to Kristin).”

In another audio snippet preview, Paul Flores’ father, Ruben Flores, is asked in a deposition what his son told him about the night Smart went missing.

“We never spoke about it, no,” Ruben Flores says.

The Smart family lawyer says: “He’s your son, he’s been accused of murdering this girl, and it’s your testimony that he’s never talked to you about those things?”

“Is this girl murdered?” Ruben Flores responds, as Flores’ lawyer interjects, saying “Ruben ...” but the conversation continues.

“He’s certainly been accused,” the lawyer states.

“That’s what the television says,” Ruben Flores responds.

Lambert’s goal for the podcast

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Chris Lambert produced a five-part podcast on the Kristin Smart case, which will be released on Sept. 30. Courtesy photo

The podcast host said that he has even visited locations where he thinks Smart’s body may be located, going to the extent of digging in the dirt himself.

Lambert hasn’t spoken with law enforcement officials but said he hopes to do so.

The case remains an active investigation. It included an excavation of a Cal Poly hillside in September 2016, but no significant findings from the dig were ever announced.

From his research, Lambert said he thinks authorities have a good idea of what happened. They just can’t prove it.

“Personally, I think it was solved in the first few weeks,” Lambert said. “I think they know what happened. Proving the case in the court of law is the hard part.”

Lambert said that he believes the podcast reveals new information that hasn’t been publicly reported before, and clarifications about certain details will be enlightening.

“My plan is to put out the first five episodes and hopefully, once people get a sense of what I’m doing, people will want to speak to me after, and we’ll continue to do more episodes,” Lambert said.

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.