For just over two decades, the name “Kristin Smart” has been locally associated with an unresolved murder, a potentially botched investigation, and an outdated billboard posted in the Village of Arroyo Grande.
Smart went missing on May 25, 1996, during her freshman year at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo (SLO), and has yet to be found. She was last seen with her alleged murderer Paul Flores, the only suspect to be publicly named by the SLO County Sheriff’s Department, and was officially declared legally dead on May 25, 2002.
Smart’s case has faded in and out of the local news, with events like the Cal Poly excavation in 2016 and multiple searches of the Flores’ backyard causing fleeting and inconclusive resurgences in the case.
Kristin Smart is a household name now, which can be largely attributed to Chris Lambert, an Orcutt, Calif. based singer/songwriter. Lambert’s debut of his podcast, “Your Own Backyard,” on Sept. 30, 2019, has prompted yet another revival of the case.
The podcast, available on his website, Apple Podcasts and Spotify, has reached almost four million downloads since it first aired six months ago, and its popularity has helped a once local story gain international attention.
“I never expected it to leave the Central Coast,” Lambert said. “I never expected it to go international.”
Lambert’s personal interest in the case acted as a catalyst for the creation of the podcast, while his background in sound production and recording turned his vision into a successful venture.
Other trending crime podcasts such as Crime Junkie and True Crime Garage highlight various murders, disappearances and unsolved mysteries through discussions and relaying facts. Lambert opted for a different approach, and created an immersive and visceral experience through music and sound.
“I’m a writer. I’m a songwriter. I’m a storyteller. It felt very important to me that it opened with me retracing her last route,” Lambert said. “That you hear me driving to meet her parents and how nervous I was, and how uncomfortable that was. That you hear the phone ringing when I’m making phone calls to people. I wanted to feel like you’re there at every step.”
Lambert’s initial search for answers yielded little results, aside from an article posted in the Los Angeles Times in 2006 that chronicles Smart’s college life, disappearance and subsequent investigation.
“This is a story that has not been told properly,” Lambert said. “It’s a story that was too hard for me to find, especially as a local.”
Updates were few and far between, and the public eye eventually shifted away from the outdated case and onto newer, more prevalent issues.
“I think this happens in a lot of cases where they just stagnate for whatever reason because there’s no motivation to solve it,” Lambert said. “As much as I think that the law enforcement now has good intentions with what they want to do, I honestly don’t know that it was as much of a priority as the [Smart family] would have liked it to be.”
The podcast’s increasing popularity has contributed to keeping the case in the spotlight, but it also doubles as an outlet for listeners who may have information about the case to safely share tips.
“I would say on average I get probably three to five tips a day, and that’s been since October,” Lambert said. “I’ve had people reach out to me who the sheriff’s department have been trying to get a hold of for years, and have not been able to.”
Lambert uses the term “freelance journalism” loosely, but he believes that his lack of training and ties to professional news outlets is the reason why listeners are open to contacting him, anonymously or not.
“They’re not afraid to tell me because I’m just some guy,” Lambert said. “I’m in a position where I’m sort of an ‘every man,’ and so people don’t feel as scared to come forward to me with information.”
Lambert has conducted over 130 interviews, and has amassed hundreds of tips and interview notes, all of which many prove to play a pivotal role in bringing the case to a close after years of being active and ongoing.
Lambert’s positive relationship with the SLO County Sheriff’s Department, which has jurisdiction over the case, may help the investigation move in the right direction.
“At this point, I feel like we’re on good terms,” Lambert said. “I’m not in their way, and I am sharing things with them when I feel like they’re important.”
Despite the amount of time, energy and research he’s put into writing and producing “Your Own Backyard,” Lambert is willing to leave the investigation and its resolution to the professionals. His intentions with the podcast were never to bolster his own name, but rather to keep Smart’s case invigorated.
“I’m letting the sheriff’s department do their jobs,” Lambert said. “If it’s taking too long, or I feel like they’re not really pushing, I’ve got new episodes to drop.”
The investigation has been categorized as ongoing and active for 24 years, and Lambert feels that the SLO County Sheriff’s Department is on the verge of breaking the case.
“I wake up often thinking I’m going to see something in the news,” Lambert said. “I feel like it’s any day now.”
Going forward, Lambert has no plans to participate in any documentaries or shows regarding Smart’s case, and isn’t looking to profit off her story.
“I think that somebody will do a documentary on it, [but it] doesn’t need to be me,” Lambert said. “Priority number one: Find Kristin.”