Defense attorney Robert M. Sanger opens a door at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse on Feb. 11, 2005, in Santa Maria, Calif., while the jury deliberates for the third full day in pop star Michael Jackson’s child sex trial.
In terms of celebrity clientele, they don’t get much bigger than the “King of Pop.”
But celebrated Central Coast defense attorney Robert Sanger, who helped win a not-guilty verdict for the late singer Michael Jackson in his child molestion case, now finds himself representing the prime defendant in a 25-year-old murder mystery launched to international prominence thanks largely to a locally produced true crime podcast.
Sanger appeared at a court arraignment Thursday morning for Paul Flores, the “prime suspect” long-believed by law enforcement and Central Coast residents to be responsible for the 1996 disappearance of Cal Poly freshman Kristin Smart.
Flores was arrested Tuesday in San Pedro by San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s officials on suspicion of murdering the 19-year-old Smart, who was last seen being walked to her dorm room by Flores after a late-night party.
On Wednesday, the county District Attorney’s Office filed a charge of murder against Flores, saying for the first time that Smart was killed during the commission of a rape or attempted rape.
Flores, 44, has not yet entered a plea and is going to be back before Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen on Monday, when attorneys are expected to present arguments regarding bail.
He appeared at the arraignment via Zoom from the County Jail dressed in a full suit and tie — a rare occurrence for San Luis Obispo County defendants, who normally receive a simple collared shirt — after Sanger successfully petitioned van Rooyen by arguing that jail garb would prejudice his client’s right to a fair trial given the international media attention, court records show.
Flores’ father, Ruben Flores, who was also arrested Tuesday in Arroyo Grande and has been charged with felony accessory, attended the arraignment in an orange jumpsuit.
Paul Flores, upper left appears at his arraignment. He was taken into custody in San Pedro and booked into San Luis Obispo County Jail on suspicion of the murder of Kristin Smart. At center top is Judge Craig van Rooyen. Upper right is Harold Mesick, attorney representing Paul Flores. Center left is Assistant District Attorney Chris Peuvrelle. Center is Robert Sanger, center right is Sara Sanger both representing Ruben Flores. Bottom frame is Ruben Flores, father of Paul, charged as an accessory to murder. San Luis Obispo County Court
He remains in County Jail with bail set at $250,000.
Both Sanger, who declined to comment to the press about ongoing proceedings as a matter of policy, and Harold Mesick, another longtime Central Coast attorney who is representing Ruben Flores, have declined to comment on the case to The Tribune.
A protective order issued Thursday by van Rooyen now also prohibits all parties in the case from making public statements about the proceedings.
Public officials, however, such as Sheriff Ian Parkinson and District Attorney Dan Dow, are not bound by the restriction.
Robert M. Sanger, a member of Michael Jackson’s legal defense team, arrives at the Santa Barbara County Superior Court on Friday, March 11, 2005 in Santa Maria. NICK UT AP
A Central Coast ‘super lawyer’
Sanger, senior partner at Sanger, Swysen & Dunkle, is an experienced trial attorney and has practiced in Santa Barbara since 1973.
He earned his bachelor of arts degree from UC Santa Barbara in 1970 and his juris doctorate from the UCLA School of Law in 1973, according to his firm’s biography.
Specializing in complex criminal and civil litigation, Sanger is admitted to practice in local, state and federal courts, and is a frequent contributor of articles and book reviews published in the American Bar Association Journal and elsewhere.
He’s a past president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, the state association for defense attorneys, and has twice served as president of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Santa Barbara chapter.
Sanger has received several awards and recognition for his work, and is designated a “super lawyer” by Super Lawyers Magazine.
Pop star Michael Jackson prepares to depart the Santa Barbara County courthouse Monday, Jan. 31, 2005, for a lunch break during the first day of jury selection in his child molestation trial in Santa Maria, Calif. Defense attorneys Robert M. Sanger and Susan Yu follow Jackson. BRENDEN MCDERMID AP
Attorney was a longtime lawyer for Michael Jackson
Sanger’s firm had long represented legendary pop star Jackson when the embattled singer died in 2009.
When Jackson was accused of sexual abuse by a 13-year-old boy in 1993, Sanger represented him during the resulting high-publicity civil trial alongside co-counsel Steve Cochran, as well as the Los Angeles grand jury investigations.
Jackson settled the civil suit out of court in 1994 for a reported $23 million. The grand jury did not return indictments against Jackson, and prosecutors dropped their criminal case after the alleged victim declined to cooperate, according to The New York Times.
Another civil case “brought by a disgruntled maid and security guards,” according to Sanger’s firm’s website, resulted in favorable verdicts for the defense, including awards of roughly $1.4 million.
In December 2003, Jackson was charged with seven counts of child molestation and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent for the purpose of committing a felony.
He was later indicted on several additional related charges, including conspiracy involving child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion. He faced as much as 18 years in prison if convicted.
An artist rendering shows Michael Jackson, right, seated in court with defense lawyer Robert Sanger inside the Santa Barbara County courthouse Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2005, in Santa Maria, the day a jury of four men and eight women was selected in the trial. BILL ROBLES AP
A turbulent 4-month trial in Santa Maria that Sanger’s firm calls “a very difficult case especially with regard to the unprecedented amount of international media attention,” included repeat hospitalizations, courtroom absences and odd behavior on the part of Jackson.
After 32 hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on all charges.
Jackson died of cardiac arrest in 2009.
“These legal issues were over. By 2009, Michael Jackson was embarking on a new sensational venture in his career,” Sanger’s firm says. “He should and will be remembered as a kind and giving, intelligent and well-read man who was also one of the most gifted entertainers, musicians and choreographers of our time.”
The statement continues: “Mr. Jackson became a friend and was on his way to a new and exciting part of his career at the time of his tragic death. We will miss him.”
Attorney Robert Sanger makes his opening statement for his client Christopher Edward Skiff, the owner of The Manse on Marsh assisted living facility in San Luis Obispo, found guilty of elder abuse resulting in death and involuntary manslaughter for the December 2014 death of 65-year-old Mauricio Edgar Cardenas. Joe Johnston [email protected]
Robert Sanger’s SLO County cases
Despite his heavyweight reputation, Sanger is a frequent face in the San Luis Obispo courthouse, where few if any clients fit the description or bear the bankroll of a celebrity.
In 2019, for example, he represented 20-year-old Nikko Anaya of Manteca, who along with Brianna Morales, 24, initially faced felony charges of human trafficking of a minor for sex as well as dissuading a witness after San Luis Obispo police discovered the teen victim at a local motel.
Police said at the time then-16-year-old Anaya prostituted his 15-year-old girlfriend to as many as 20 men over a six-day period in July 2015 before the girl managed to call her father, who directed officers to a motel on the 1600 block of Monterey Street.
In superior court from the left: Brianna Morales, 24, attorney Robert Sanger and Nikko Anaya, 20. Morales and Anaya were sentenced Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Initially charged with felony human trafficking of a minor for sex, both agreed to plead no contest to a felony kidnapping charge in April. Nikko Anaya, 20, and Brianna Morales, 24, both of Manteca, were sentenced Wednesday to 364 days in San Luis Obispo County Jail. David Middlecamp [email protected]
With Sanger’s representation, prosecutors agreed to drop the human trafficking charges in favor of a guilty plea to a felony kidnapping charge. The two were sentenced to a year in County Jail, after potentially facing years in prison.
In 2017, Sanger represented Christopher Skiff, the owner of the former downtown SLO Manse on Marsh living center, which is now operating under new ownership as Avila Senior Living of Downtown SLO.
Skiff, along with the facility’s administrator, were charged with manslaughter and elder abuse for the 2014 death of 65-year-old facility resident Mauricio Edgar Cardenas.
Cardenas, who had been an independent-minded resident in his short time there, was struck by a car Dec. 21, 2014, as he walked or jogged in the dark on Los Osos Valley Road roughly 10 miles from the facility.
It was determined following a nearly month-long trial that Cardenas, as a person diagnosed with dementia, should not have been admitted to the facility, which was not licensed to care for dementia patients.
The Manse had twice previously been cited for that reason.
Christopher Skiff, owner of The Manse on Marsh senior assisted living center in San Luis Obispo, testifies in his own defense Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018, in San Luis Obispo Superior Court. Jurors found Skiff guilty of two charges of felony manslaughter and elder abuse for the 2014 death of resident Mauricio Cardenas. David Middlecamp [email protected]
An attorney with the California Attorney General’s Office, which prosecuted the case because The Manse was a state-licensed facility, argued during the nearly month-long trial that Skiff sought to increase profits by accepting Cardenas even though they knew they weren’t licensed to care for him.
Several employees, some who testified against their former boss, told a state investigator that the business’ attempts to admit dementia patients was “an accident waiting to happen.”
Sanger argued during the trial that the state’s case was based on information from “disgruntled former employees” and pointed out that two other state agencies — the CHP and Department of Social Services — had not found the facility was at fault for Cardenas’ death.
Skiff was convicted on both counts and sentenced to serve 180 days in San Luis Obispo County Jail. His co-defendant later accepted a plea agreement for no jail time.
The Manse on Marsh is located in downtown San Luis Obispo. Monica Vaughan [email protected]
Skiff lost his appeal of the verdict, and is prohibited from having any involvement in the day-to-day operations of any adult care facility in the future. He sold ownership of The Manse on Marsh about six months after his trial.
Ruben Flores’ attorney worked the Dystiny Myers murder trial
Mesick, representing Ruben Flores, is a well-known San Luis Obispo County criminal and civil attorney who has worked a variety of cases over the years — and played a pivotal role in the county’s biggest criminal trial of the 2010s.
A former firefighter with the city of Davis, Mesick also worked for the U.S. Army’s Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, where he said Thursday he specialized in linguistics, radio communications and wire taps.
He’s a graduate of the University of Northern California’s Lorenzo Patiño School of Law, according to the California State Bar, where he was admitted in 2003.
Most notable among his local cases is the five-defendant kidnapping and murder case against Cody Lane Miller of Fresno; Ty Michael Hill of Santa Maria; and Frank York, Rhonda Wisto, and Jason Adam Greenwell of Nipomo.
The five alleged members of a methamphetamine ring were charged in the gruesome murder of 15-year-old Santa Maria runaway Dystiny Myers.
On Sept. 26, 2010, Myers’ body was found beaten and partially burned in a field in Santa Margarita. The night she died, she was assaulted and beaten with a baseball bat at Wisto’s home in Nipomo before she was bound and taken to rural Santa Margarita, according to court testimony.
Myers died from mechanical asphyxiation with blunt force trauma and a toxic level of meth in her system, according to testimony.
Her offense: “disrespecting” Wisto, the group’s alleged ringleader and York’s mother.
During the high-profile trial that resulted in media attention from across the state, Mesick was appointed to represent Greenwell, who according to testimony was the most remorseful of the defendants.
Mesick said Thursday he “helped (his) client make the decision” to testify against the other defendants. Greenwell’s testimony was damning, and every other defendant was ultimately convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Jason Adam Greenwell demonstrates how Ty Michael Hill bound a drugged Dystiny Myers before she was beaten and killed on Monday, March 18, in San Luis Obispo Superior Court. [email protected]
For his testimony, Greenwell was sentenced to 15 years to life in state prison.
On Thursday, Mesick told The Tribune he felt that encouraging his client to flip was the right thing to do for both his client and the Myers family. He said Greenwell was “just minimally involved” in the crimes compared to his co-defendants and that Greenwell “got sucked into that case.”
Though he could not discuss proceedings in the Kristin Smart case due to the protective order, Mesick said Thursday that working high-profile criminal cases with massive media attention is always difficult for a defense attorney.
“It’s always hard for the defense because we’re always the underdog, and many people believe that because someone wouldn’t be criminally charged if they didn’t commit the crime,” Mesick said. “It’s an uphill battle.”
Choosing his words carefully, Mesick said that problem is magnified ten-fold in the Kristin Smart case, which has gone international.
“After the (“Your Own Backyard”) podcast, (Ruben Flores has) been roundly convicted in the court of public opinion,” Mesick said. “That’s certainly a challenge.”
Follow more of our reporting on Full Coverage of the Kristin Smart Case
See all stories
Matt Fountain is The San Luis Obispo Tribune’s courts and investigations reporter. A San Diego native, Fountain graduated from Cal Poly’s journalism department in 2009 and cut his teeth at the San Luis Obispo New Times before joining The Tribune as a crime and breaking news reporter in 2014.