Editor’s Note: The People v. Flores is covered daily by Mustang News. Follow @CPMustangNews on Twitter and Instagram for more updates. Read previous articles about the lawsuit here.
Thursday’s proceedings consisted of testimony from Cindy Arrington, an archaeologist who conducted a search of Ruben Flores’ home at 710 White Ct. on March 21, 2021.
Prosecutor Christopher Peuvrelle asked Arrington to describe his expertise and experience in the field of archaeology. Noting her bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as her experience working on sites over her 30-year career, Peuvrelle asked the court to appoint Arrington as an expert in her field, which Judge Jennifer O’Keefe granted. .
Arrington said she was trained in site excavation when looking for human remains.
“One of the first things that pops up is a stain,” Arrington said. “When a body is buried in the ground… the liquids spread horizontally and vertically and leave a stain around the skeletal remains.”
Arrington went on to explain the concept of stratigraphy, which refers to the natural process in which soils are deposited on the earth’s surface. She described “beautiful straight lines” that appear in the ground when left undisturbed over time, and went on to say that when the ground has been dug up and replaced, these lines are very clearly disturbed.
During the search, law enforcement officials from the SLO Sheriff’s Department suggested locations for Arrington and his partner, Philip Hanes, who testified on Wednesday, to use Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) technology to search anomalies in the ground.
Police were looking for Smart’s body, which the prosecution said was buried under the Ruben Flores Bridge and later removed.
Archaeologists marked eleven grids across the property, and Hanes said Wednesday he found four anomalies among the grids. He said he “recommends the excavation of the four anomalies to be sure [to law enforcement]but that one of the anomalies, that of Grid One, seemed the most “promising”.
Grid One was below the deck of the house, in the same location where two human remains detector dogs showed a change in behavior consistent with being in their target scent (of human remains) on the same day.
On Wednesday, Hanes said the anomaly on Grid One “was a surface-to-depth anomaly.” This indicated the presence of a disturbance through the surface layers, potentially indicating that someone had dug through the surface to the location of the anomaly.
Arrington echoed that statement on Thursday, speaking specifically to the lack of stratigraphy in the ground on Grid One.
“It tells us that a hole had been dug there before,” Arrington said. “That floor had been removed and put back in place.”
Arrington told Peuvrelle that the soil stains were “consistent” with other human decompositions she had seen prior to this case.
During opening statements in July, Ruben Flores’ lawyer, Harold Mesick, told the jury that Paul and Ruben Flores could not have buried a body under the deck of the house because there was no room for them. During Arrington’s testimony, Peuvrelle established that officers were initially able to excavate the area without removing the bridge.
On Thursday, Peuvrelle showed the jury a photo of the floor in Grid One, which revealed an irregular ring-shaped pattern in the floor. Arrington said the pattern depicted where the fluids had leaked into the ground at some point.
Peuvrelle asked Arrington what conclusions she could draw from the coloring. She said it showed “liquid had leaked out, probably due to decomposition”.
“We have an irregular pattern where the ground is darker than the ground inside and outside,” Arrington said. This fluid seeped slowly into the ground over time – not quickly, otherwise the lines would be thicker.
At this point, one of Paul Flores’ jurors began sobbing loudly in the courtroom. Judge Jennifer O’Keefe called for a lunch break 20 minutes earlier than scheduled and the proceedings were adjourned until 2 p.m., 30 minutes after they resumed.
“It’s been a long trial, it’s been a tough trial, and sometimes things are emotional,” O’Keefe said when the jurors returned after lunch. “It’s not unusual for that to happen.”
Peuvrelle continued to ask Arrington about the stain, which she said appeared about 2 feet underground and went “a little deeper than 4 feet”. Peuvrelle showed Arrington another photo of the floor and asked him to describe it again.
“Once the staining happened, the ground was disturbed again,” Arrington said.
Paul Flores’ attorney, Robert Sanger, moved to strike out that response for “lack of merit.” O’Keefe dismissed the objection and Arrington continued.
“These observations are consistent with a dug hole, something being put in there that’s leaking…fluids, and that it’s being dug.”
Arrington also testified that police found no bones during the excavation, which is not typical if a body had been placed underground. She said, however, that if the body was wrapped in plastic sheeting, liquid could have leaked out without leaving any trace of bone.
Sanger questioned that theory during cross-examination, telling Arrington that she found no evidence of a tarp or semi-permeable membrane. Sanger said Arrington came up with the theory while talking to Detective Clint Cole on the phone a few days after the research, and called it “brainstorming”.
“So it’s speculation on your part that there might have been a tarp,” he said.
“That’s not speculation sir, that’s experience,” Arrington replied.
Later in her cross-examination, Sanger said that Arrington would have found fibers in the ground if a tarp had been placed there, but she clarified that if someone had pulled out a body in a tarp “after a short time time there would be no trace of the tarp because it would not have started to decompose.
Arrington confirmed that she had no specific experience working with bodies wrapped in tarps, although she argued the theory was possible.
Sanger continued to question Arrington about her conversation with Detective Cole, where Sanger said she told Cole the staining may have been caused by roots, although Arrington said Thursday she remembered having used the term “organic matter”.
During that same conversation, Arrington suggested to Cole that the body may have been buried a little higher below deck, which she believed would explain the leak during excavation on Grid One. This area was inaccessible, however, and law enforcement officials removed part of Ruben Flores’ bridge about a month later so Hanes could use GPR technology to check for anomalies.
Sanger established that they never found evidence of human decomposition at this second location.
Sanger established that Arrington didn’t know what spots in the ground they found under Grid One for a fact, which she agreed with.
Sanger then pointed to one of the concrete walls of the house, which was underground next to the Grid One area. He argued that the ground disturbance could have been caused by a bulldozer being used to put the wall underground, but Arrington said the marks she saw in the ground were made by hand.
“We didn’t notice any mechanical marks,” she said, noting that it’s very easy to tell if the disturbances in the ground are made by a machine or “by hand,” like with a shovel.
Arrington also said she and Hanes found “no stains in any of the other digs”, only on Grid One.
Sanger ended his first round of cross-examination by arguing that a decomposing body would have caused a substantial odor in that area of the property, although Arrington said “the term ‘substantial odor’ is subjective”, and clarified that there are many environmental factors. which could affect the strength of the odor.
After Sanger asked a few more questions, Arrington said that “a rotting body in a shallow grave would give off a strong odor.”
Ruben Flores’ attorney, Harold Mesick, told Arrington the soil stain could have been caused by a variety of things, including plant material and diesel fuel.
“A [reason] would be a rotting body,” she added.
Mesick also said the lack of stratigraphy in the ground could have been the result of glacial runoff or flooding, although Arrington said it was “not likely…based on the geography.”
Mesick then stated that Smart’s body would have held approximately 9 gallons of fluid and argued that “there is no staining to support 9 gallons of body fluid.”
Arrington agreed, but added that this would only be true if his body was not wrapped in a semi-permeable membrane, like a tarp.
“I just have issues,” Mesick said. “You draw all your conclusions to support the prosecution’s theory.”
Peuvrelle intercepted this with an objection, which O’Keefe supported.
Arrington agreed with Mesick when he said the staining may have had an explanation other than a decomposing body placed in the ground.
Arrington later told Peuvrelle that decomposition spots are a good indicator of a burial site, because “when a body decomposes, fluids leak out of the body. And so you wouldn’t have a funeral without a stain of decay.
Sanger clarified that while liquid stains are a good indicator of a burial, stains can appear in the ground without a burial having taken place. Arrington agreed.