LOS ANGELES — Something seemed strange about the emails Christopher Ryan Smith was sending while on vacation in Africa last year. The 32-year-old adventurer’s chatty tone was muted and responses were uncharacteristically terse.
"The emails were short and sweet," said Jim Amormino, an Orange County Sheriff’s Department spokesman. "They were just too generic."
The reason Smith didn’t seem like himself is because it wasn’t him. Authorities say Smith never went to Africa at all, but had been murdered in his Southern California office by his business partner Edward Younghoon Shin, who hijacked Smith’s email account and pretended he’d gone overseas.
Shin is due to be arraigned in an Orange County courtroom Wednesday.
Messages started arriving soon after Smith was last seen in June 2010. In one, he was sand boarding on South African dunes. In another, he was paragliding near Johannesburg.
Authorities say Shin, 33, kept up the deceit until the final message arrived in December.
"The last one said he was going to the Congo," Amormino said. "I guess (Shin’s) thought process was the Congo was dangerous and something must have happened to him there."
Smith and Shin had gone into business a couple of years earlier, setting up a company called The 800Xchange, an "advertising agency that focuses on high-performance radio campaigns," according to Shin’s now-defunct Twitter account.
Shin had a shady business past and had been convicted of embezzlement and ordered to pay $700,000 in restitution, authorities said. When Smith found out about this and a number of lawsuits his partner was facing, he wanted out.
The two men negotiated a buyout where Shin would pay Smith about $1 million for his interest in the company.
But "instead of paying Mr. Smith $1 million, he murdered him in his business office," Amormino said.
Shin’s attorney, Al Stokke, declined to comment. A number listed for Shin’s wife appeared to have been disconnected.
Eventually, Smith’s family grew suspicious and hired a private investigator, who checked with U.S. embassies in various African countries mentioned in the emails and scoured the international press for signs of the missing American.
In April, local police took a missing person’s report and the sheriff’s department took over the investigation on Aug. 17.
Investigators went to a business park in San Juan Capistrano, a picturesque community in Orange County where Shin and Smith had based their business. Though their old office had been professionally cleaned and repainted, detectives found traces of blood in the carpet. They used DNA testing to confirm it was Smith’s.
After placing Shin under surveillance for several days, investigators arrested him Aug. 28 at Los Angeles International Airport as he was about to depart on a flight to Canada. Investigators did not say if it was on a one-way or round-trip ticket.
Following a six-hour interview, Shin confessed to the killing, though he did not say what he had done with Smith’s body, officials said.
On Aug. 29, homicide investigators arrested another man, Kenny Roy Kraft, 34, on suspicion of being an accessory after the fact and helping dispose of Smith’s belongings. The victim’s Range Rover was eventually found in San Jose.