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Emails hid a sinister secret

Christopher Smith was on an African adventure, friends and relatives thought. Then the fear came.

September 01, 2011|Richard Winton

Last summer, Christopher Ryan Smith emailed family and friends with exciting news: He was embarking on an African adventure.

Over the next few months, his emails recounted the highlights. One day he was paragliding near Johannesburg. On another, he was sand boarding in "huge mines" in South Africa where the "sand was softer than snow powder."

In December, the 32-year-old Internet executive from Laguna Beach announced that he was going to Congo and Rwanda. Then, abruptly, all communication stopped.

His worried family in Oregon called U.S. authorities and launched an international hunt, fearing he might have run into trouble in the war-torn region.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, September 02, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Orange County killing: An article in the Sept. 1 Section A about the killing of an Orange County man whose family was misled by emails saying the man had gone to Africa misspelled the first name of Orange County sheriff's homicide investigator Don Voght as Dan.

But Orange County authorities now say Smith was never in Africa; in fact, he was already dead. They say he was killed inside his office in San Juan Capistrano by his business partner, Edward Younghoon Shin, who used Smith's email account to send the messages.

Shin was arrested earlier this week and charged with Smith's killing. The charges capped an investigation that began several months ago.

The family is still reeling, trying to understand what happened.

"Those emails were a small part of the trauma he put our family through," Smith's father, Steven, said. "It was just horrendous. It went on for months.... [Shin] led us everywhere but the truth."

Smith and Shin co-founded 800xchange, an advertising and marketing firm. The firm, based in an upscale office complex in the hills of San Juan Capistrano, helped design marketing and lead-generation campaigns for companies. Authorities said that in the months before Smith disappeared, the pair had been arguing about money and that Shin had agreed to buy Smith out for $1 million.

Family and friends said they were not surprised when Smith announced plans for long-term trek to Africa. Smith was a former professional wake boarder, surfer and avid outdoorsman who craved adventure.

"Chris loved to surf, travel the world, skydive, wake board, spend time with family, watch movies, party occasionally with his friends, listen to electronic and ambient music on his headphones while he worked, play guitar, watch the stars at night, and research online to gain a deeper understanding of the world," his family wrote in a tribute to him.

His wake-boarding days were cut short by a knee injury, but he became interested in Internet startups, his first being a surfing website.

But the emails Smith's family begin receiving from Africa didn't seem like him. They were short and sometimes curt, lacking the descriptive flair and sense of fun they were used to from his dispatches.

His family told investigators that the last message on Dec. 26 worried them. The email said he had "paid some dude $100 to be online" and planned to leave South Africa for Congo and then Rwanda. From there, he planned to go to Egypt before leaving the continent for Spain.

The family alerted U.S. authorities that Smith was missing. They scoured African news websites and message boards looking for anyone who might have run into him.

With no sign of him in Africa, the family began to look to Orange County. They hired a private investigator, who learned that in May 2010, Shin had been convicted in Riverside County Superior Court of embezzling money from a prior employer. A judge ordered Shin to pay $700,000 in restitution.

In April, the family called the Laguna Beach Police Department to open a missing persons case.

Police could find no evidence that Smith had ever left the United States during the last year and brought in the Orange County Sheriff's Department homicide unit.

Orange County Assistant Sheriff Mark Billings said detectives went to the 800xchange office, which appeared to have been thoroughly cleaned and recently painted. But forensic investigators tested the office and found blood that DNA testing determined was Smith's.

Homicide detectives began conducting 11 days of extensive surveillance on Shin, a father of three who lives in Irvine with his family. Then last weekend, they recovered Smith's 2009 Range Rover in San Jose, where it had been for some time.

On Sunday, Shin went to Los Angeles International Airport and boarded a flight bound for Canada. LAX police got on the plane just before it took off and took him into custody.

During a six-hour interview, Shin confessed to killing Smith, Billings said. Shin said he did it in June 2010 "for purposes of financial gain" but did not reveal what he did with Smith's body, Billings added.

Authorities arrested Shin's personal assistant this week for allegedly helping Shin dispose of Smith's belonging and vehicle. He has pleaded not guilty. Shin has not entered a plea, and neither he nor his attorney could be reached for comment.

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