Chris Smith’s family knew something was off.
The 31-year-old adrenaline junkie appeared to be hitting his stride in life -- he was a partner at a profitable California company and seemed ready to settle down with a woman he loved.
“I don’t know many brothers that were as close as we were. We just had a unique bond. Ever since I was really little, he felt like he was there to protect me, to provide for me,” Chris Smith’s younger brother Paul told “20/20.”
But in June 2010, his family was surprised to receive an email from Chris telling them that he’d packed up and set off on a journey around the world.
His family knew he’d been under immense stress at work and had always been a free spirit that craved adventure, so in some ways the story made sense -- and his family was reassured by the emails they started to receive.
It was over a year later when they learned the shocking truth – Smith’s own business partner, Ed Shin, had been the one behind the emails, posing as Smith the entire time he was supposedly on this around-the-world adventure.
“At that point it was just-- this isn't making any sense. This guy -- he's lost his mind,” Paul Smith told “20/20.” “We started to have suspicions. But didn't want to entertain that train of thought too much because of where it would lead to. I think it was so emotionally… hard to even think about.”
The family said they hadn’t received any phone calls or photos of Chris the entire time he was gone. Steve Smith, a former police officer, started to wonder if it really was his son sending these emails, so he decided to run a test.
“I just sent him a question. I said, ‘Chris-- what lake do we live on? And what type of boat do we have?’ Just trying to confirm what I knew. And it took a while to get the emails back,” Steve Smith told “20/20.” “But he confirmed one of them. He said, ‘Yeah, we live on Kelly Lake.’ It just kind of solidified for me that he was Chris.”
In October 2010, his family received an email that said Chris was in Mumbai, India, and was planning to go on to Cyprus and Africa.
“I miss you too, but I have so much to see and do,” said an email dated Oct. 20, 2010. “No credit cards or bank accounts, bro. I'm off the grid forever.”
But something still seemed off and Smith’s parents said they began to suspect Ed Shin, Chris’s business partner, might know something. Smith's family later learned in an email supposedly from Chris to his lawyer, Ernesto Aldover, that Chris had been negotiating his exit from the business before he left.
Smith and Shin met in 2008 while they were both working in lead generation, a form of media advertising that collects customer leads using 800 numbers, and then sells those leads to other companies.
But while the two men were setting up their own lead generation company, 800XChange, Shin was caught embezzling more than half a million dollars from LG Technologies, a previous company he and Chris worked for.
“I felt, based on the relationship that we developed, things I had done for him personally, I felt that there would be some measure of loyalty. That Ed might be one of the last people that would take advantage of my generosity and kindness,” Shin’s boss at LG Technologies, Joe Gray, said. “But it all boiled down to one salient point in my mind. Ed was living beyond his means.”
During his time working in lead generation, Shin frequently spent lavish weekends in Las Vegas spending money on women and gambling sprees.
"The first time I started playing, [I gambled] a couple thousand dollars," Shin told “20/20” in a new interview. "And then, you get good at it. That's the problem with gambling ... most people tend to win early and then you're addicted to that win."
Shin pleaded guilty to embezzlement in May 2010 and agreed to pay a total of $800,000 to settle the civil and criminal cases against him. Paying that restitution would allow him to avoid prison time.
“The only way Ed he does not violate his probation and go to state prison is if he comes up with $800,000 that he has to get from 800XChange,” said Matt Murphy, a former senior deputy district attorney for Orange County and an ABC News contributor. “The only way he can get that out of 800XChange to pay this criminal restitution order is if Chris Smith agrees.”
But Smith didn’t want to sign that settlement, Aldover told “20/20.”
“He wanted to make sure that the money that belonged to him was secure,” Aldover explained. Paul Smith, who also worked for 800XChange at the time, said Chris Smith didn’t have access to the business’s accounts and was worried that Ed might steal from him as well.
On June 4, 2010, Aldover said Shin and Chris Smith were supposed to meet to finalize the agreement.
Instead, Aldover received an email from Smith that said Smith had sold his share of 800XChange to Shin.
“My first reaction was, ‘Well, why is he doing this? This isn't what we had been negotiating for the past two weeks,’” Aldover said. “The following Monday on June 7th, 2010, I receive an e-mail from Chris: ‘The documents are still being prepared, but I'm going on vacation for a few weeks to South America, and… let me know if you need anything.’”
The same day Aldover received that email, employees of 800XChange were told by Ed Shin to not come in that week.
“I went into the office when I wasn't supposed to that week. I needed to grab some stuff -- and it smelled really bad. Like, a rotten stench,” Paul Smith said. “There's fans on. It was very damp. Like, all our carpets were wet. The walls had been painted. And, I looked down and I saw a big stain outside of Chris' office on the floor.”
Shin claimed Chris Smith had come to the office extremely drunk and had vomited and urinated all over the floor.
“[Chris] didn't drink at the office. I mean, to puke and pee? Urinate at the office? I mean, it's totally not normal, you know? He would never do something like that,” Paul Smith said.
When he learned about the alleged incident, Steve Smith said he didn’t believe Shin and decided to step in, again reaching out to his son via email to ask if it was truly him, and to fire a warning shot in case it was not.
“I said, ‘If this is Ed Shin, if you hurt any one of my sons, I'm gonna --- you up, and this is the start of your nightmare.’ But then I got a reaction to it,” Smith remembered.
On Dec. 17, 2010, Steve Smith received an email from Chris saying, “Dad, I'm fine. Stop tripping. I just needed to get some --- out of my head.”
“So I thought, ‘Oh, okay.’ But I still had feelings that something was wrong after that,” Steve Smith said.
The Smith family received emails from Chris saying he planned to journey through Africa, cross over to Spain and on to Costa Rica, where he said he would meet Paul in February 2011.
“Eventually Paul calls the hotel that they're actually supposed to go to, and he learns from the hotel that there's no reservation in the name of his brother,” Murphy said. “That really was probably the nail in the coffin... the family needed to get some help.”
In early 2011, the Smiths learned there was no record of Chris entering or leaving South Africa, where they believed he had last been.
Knowing now there was something seriously wrong, Steve Smith said he decided to see what his son’s former business partner could tell him.
“I had actually brought a gun with me,” he said. “I was wanting … to find my son.”
Shin told Steve Smith, who secretly recorded the conversation, that his son got a fake passport through a man in Las Vegas who referred him to another man in Los Angeles.
“We stopped by there to meet with him and I stayed in the car,” Shin told Smith in the recording.
“I think there's something really wrong. He's lying to me,” Steve Smith told “20/20.” “Either he knows what happened to Chris, or he's responsible for it.”
In April 2011, Smith filed a missing persons report with the Laguna Beach Police.
Shin came in to the police department for questioning in June 2011, a full year after Chris Smith was last seen, and he told them, “I don’t know where he is.”
“Honestly, I think he’s on the other side of the world. And he doesn’t want to be found,” Shin said.
The Smith family got a computer expert to analyze the data in the emails the family received from Chris, who uncovered disturbing news: The emails had been sent from within the U.S., not abroad.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department went to 800XChange's former offices, and found traces of blood.
“It was helter-skelter,” Murphy said. “It was a bloody mess.”
Months later, a DNA test confirmed the blood belonged to Chris Smith.
In August 2011, police arrested Shin as he was boarding a plane from Los Angeles to Canada. At the time, they picked him up for violating his probation from the embezzlement case, which stipulated he was not allowed to leave the country.
He told police he and Smith got into a huge fight in 800XChange office, where Smith fatally hit his head. Shin claimed he paid a mysterious Eastern European man $10,000 to $15,000 to dispose of Smith’s body. Shin also insisted he didn’t know where the body was.
“It was a tough day. Just fell to my knees,” Paul Smith said. “The images that come into your mind at that point of someone you love being murdered. Brought in a lot of emotions. And just heartbreak.”
In December 2018, Shin was convicted of first-degree murder with special circumstances, and was later sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He continues to claim that Chris Smith died accidentally during their fight. To this day, Shin insists he never aimed to kill Smith and refuses to reveal the location of his body.
“I can't talk about that … because I don’t know,” Shin, now 42, told “20/20” in a jailhouse interview. “There is no way I can get into that at this point … I wish I could tell you more but, there's something bigger that I just can't talk about.”
As for Smith’s family, they are left to try to pick up the pieces and honor Smith’s memory.
“We can feel his spirit, still,” Paul Smith said of his brother. “We're confident that we're going to see him again someday. You know, we have that hope. So, we cling to that hope.”