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."
Business gone bad?
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.
'Roller coaster ride'In a June 23 blog post under the moniker "Mr. Shincredible," which the Los Angeles Times attributed to Shin, the writer says his life "has been nothing short of a roller coaster ride," but "Though most of it was self imposed through a series of bad decisions guided by bad judgment, I can safely say that I am happy to be here."
The post continues with a contrite and religious tone, with the writer acknowledging, "I will publicly admit all of my wrongdoing."
"In the end, as I look upon my life and live it with a heavy heart knowing the people that I've hurt along the way, I can only hope to try and rectify everything in some small measure and know that in God's eyes that was good enough and that I'm good enough for him," it says later in the post.
As for Smith, his family eventually 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.
'Someone out there can help us'
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.
The alleged victim's father, Steven Smith, declined to comment to the Times in regards to the blog post. He did reiterate a plea to the newspaper: "Our family wants Christopher's remains back. We want to know where Christopher is. Someone out there can help us."
The victim's Range Rover was eventually found in San Jose.
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. Kraft pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, the Los Angeles Times report said.