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Kristin Smart case: Archaeologists testify about “potential burial” site under Ruben Flores’ deck

Dave Minsky | Santa Maria Times
Ruben Flores sits in San Luis Obispo Superior Court Aug. 25 for his preliminary hearing. He is being charged with accessory after the fact.

The preliminary hearing for Paul and Ruben Flores began the sixth week of proceedings today, Sept. 7.

The prosecution took two witnesses out of order today since the witnesses are coming from out-of-town. The cross-examination of Shelby Liddell, a San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s forensic specialist, is expected to continue later in proceedings

Smart’s remains have never been found, but investigators have alleged that Smart’s body was at one time buried under Ruben Flores’ deck and has recently been moved. Evidence of a potential burial location is what the prosecution examined during today’s proceedings.

The morning began with Philip Hanes on the stand. Hanes is an archaeologist who used ground-penetrating radar on areas around Ruben Flores’ Arroyo Grande home on March 15 and 16 of this year.

Ground-penetrating radar works by transmitting waves into the ground and measuring the reflections of those frequencies. Hanes said this technology can be used to find underground utility pipes and is also used to guide excavation or rule out the need for excavation.

Hanes said law enforcement pointed out 11 areas of interest in the backyard including under the deck and near the avocado groves, which he examined with ground-penetrating radar.

Deputy District Attorney Christopher Peuvrelle asked Hanes about a section of ground under Ruben Flores’ deck where Hanes said he detected an anomaly in the soil from his ground penetrating radar machine.

Hanes described an anomaly as a consistency change to the ground and says excavation, or digging into the soil, is needed to determine what is causing the anomaly.

Hanes said he found an approximate four-feet-wide, six-feet-long and four-feet-deep anomaly under Ruben Flores’ deck and said that it was “big enough for a potential burial.”

During the cross-examination, defense attorneys Robert Sanger, representing Paul Flores and Harold Mesick, representing Ruben Flores, both asked about what could have caused an anomaly in the soil.

Hanes said an anomaly could be caused by multiple things including animal disturbance, possible construction and previous digging among others. Hanes said he could not determine when the disturbance was caused using ground penetrating radar.

The defense also questioned the validity of using ground-penetrating radar to find human remains.

Hanes cited a case he worked on in Sacramento in August 2020 where he used ground penetrating radar to discover the remains of Christie Wilson nearly 15 years after she disappeared. In this case, investigators were able to recover nearly her entire skeleton.

Hanes was excused and subject to recall.

Next to take the stand was Cindy Arrington, who is Hanes’ coworker and an archeologist specializing in human remains. She also talked about the same anomaly under the deck. She said she noticed a stain in the soil, which she described as a “bathtub ring,” during excavation.

Arrington said in her professional opinion, the stain looked like a “decomposition stain” and was “large enough to fit human remains.”

During cross-examination, Arrington said when human remains are not removed from an area, there should be a concentrated pool at the bottom where fluid stopped leaking into the soil. In the area under Ruben’s porch, the staining pattern was not consistent on the bottom, which Arrington said indicated that whatever caused the leaking had been removed.

Mesick, taking into account Smart’s 6’1” stature and approximate weight of 145 pounds, said there would be about nine gallons of fluid in Smart’s body. Mesick asked Arrington if this amount of fluid would leave a bigger stain than photos of the stain that were shown in court.

Arrington said the fluids would have “leaked out over time” and said that it would have been a bigger area of staining if the soil had not been disturbed.

The defense also asked Arrington if anything had been found during the excavation including teeth or bones, and she said nothing to her knowledge had been found.

Arrington returned to the site during an April excavation where law enforcement officers from the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department removed a portion of the deck to examine the ground below, which could not be examined earlier because it was too small a space for a person to stand up.

Arrington said there was some staining, but they didn’t find any artifacts in this newly-examined area.

“Staining did not occur across the entire bottom of the anomaly,” Arrington said. She added that continuous staining would be expected "had the area not been disturbed."

Peuvrelle asked Arrington if there would be anything left in the ground if something was wrapped up before it was buried. Arrington said that nothing would be left except for the fluid and potential trace fibers.

Arrington said she did not do chemical testing on the stain to determine if it was human blood, but said there were no primate or ferret bones found during the excavation.

Arrington was excused and subject to recall.

The preliminary hearing will continue tomorrow morning for the 20th day of proceedings.

Lauren Walike joined KCBX as its news manager in February 2021. In addition to her KCBX work, Lauren also serves as news director for KCPR-FM, Cal Poly’s student-run radio station, and digital director of Mustang Media Group, Cal Poly’s student-run news organization. She will graduate from Cal Poly’s Honors Program in June 2021 with a Bachelor of Science in journalism with minors in Integrated Marketing Communications and Media Arts, Society and Technology.
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