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Sheriff, cold case investigator reflect on Kristin Smart trial and sentencing

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Posted at 6:01 PM, Mar 21, 2023

The Kristin Smart case has held the attention of millions of people, especially as the “Your Own Backyard” podcast’s popularity grew. But perhaps no one has taken a closer look at the case than San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Investigator Clint Cole.

KSBY News anchor Richard Gearhart sat down with the newly-retired investigator and Sheriff Ian Parkinson to get their reaction to the conviction and sentencing of Paul Flores for the 1996 murder of Kristin Smart.

Thirteen years ago, when Parkinson was elected sheriff, he made a promise to Stan and Denise Smart – he’d work to put whoever was responsible for their daughter's disappearance and death behind bars. While it took much longer than anyone expected, Flores' sentencing on March 10 meant he’d kept his promise.

“Knowing them now for 13 years, I just, you know, I've seen [Denise] so many times and didn't really see her like that before... It wasn't the same Denise at sentencing,” Sheriff Parkinson said.

And it wasn’t just the sheriff whose career hung on solving this case. With little initial progress, Parkinson had an idea.

“I felt strongly that if we get somebody that they weren't on call at night, they weren't going out on the fresh cases, they were just methodically going through these cold cases that it would be much, much better in our interest because they would be focused,” Parkinson said.

That person was Clint Cole and he was named to the new position of Cold Case Investigator in 2017.

It took nearly a year just to go through the evidence the sheriff’s office already had before Cole started the painstaking process of collecting enough new evidence to convince 12 jurors that Paul Flores was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

“It only takes one person on the jury to say no, and that added to the whole stress of this case," Cole said. "I mean, it was tough. I'm not afraid to say it was very, very tough at times.”

He did solve a couple of other cold cases, but it was the Smart case that took most of this time.

"But these cases stick with you. I mean, there's not a day goes by I don't think about Kristin. So it, you know, they wear on you,” Cole said.

The sentence brought a sense of relief, even accomplishment, but also regret.

“Kristin - I feel like I let the family down because we couldn't bring her home... I didn't care about Paul Flores. He was just bones. I wanted to bring Kristin home and that's a huge disappointment,” Cole said.

Even though the verdict and sentencing went Cole’s way, the case would also ultimately end his career.

“There were some days it was rough - the pressure on this case - and after the verdict, I took 30 days off just to see if I could rejuvenate myself and I just couldn't. So I, as you know, I retired.”

Investigator Cole retired on March 10, the day Paul Flores was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for Smart's murder.

A new cold case investigator has already been appointed. Sheriff Parkinson says there are still several cold cases that need to be solved.