A San Juan Capistrano executive was convicted Friday of the financially motivated murder of his business partner.
An Orange County jury deliberated for just under an hour before convicting 41-year-old Ed Younghoon Shin of first-degree murder and finding true a special circumstance allegation that the June 2010 killing was committed for financial gain. The panel was given the option of considering a range of options down to involuntary manslaughter.
A Feb. 1 sentencing date is scheduled for Shin, who faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“I’m incredibly grateful to the jury and all their hard work,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy said. “We hope this brings peace to the (victim’s) family.”
Shin had racked up gambling debts in Las Vegas and was battling allegations of embezzling $700,000 to $900,000 from his previous employer when he killed 32-year-old Christopher Ryan Smith, the prosecutor said.
Shin testified that the two got into a fistfight that led to Smith’s death, but that he did not plan to kill his business partner. He said he disposed of Smith’s body and carried on email correspondence in the victim’s name with his family and girlfriend, but could not imagine how to end it and characterized it as a “day-to-day thing.”
Shin and Smith met while working in the advertising leads industry in Orange County and agreed to set up their own company 800XChange, which primarily focused on handing off leads to debt consolidation companies, Murphy said.
The “affable, charming” Shin was as successful as Smith, a surfing enthusiast who grew up in Watsonville, California, Murphy said.
Shin was the chief financial officer while Smith was the chief executive officer of the companies they subsequently formed. Things were “going gangbusters” for the duo until Shin began shuttling back and forth from Las Vegas on private jets to bet “obscene” amounts of money, Murphy said.
And tensions rose when Shin’s prior employer sued the defendant and the victim over allegations of “improper redistribution of funds” in the range of $700,000 to $900,000, the prosecutor said. Then Shin got hit with a separate lawsuit, Murphy said.
Eventually, Shin negotiated a potential settlement of the litigation, but was given a five-month deadline, which became a problem when a now-suspicious Smith would not sign off on the agreement unless he received new protections against embezzlement, the prosecutor said.
“We need to make sure he doesn’t have room for fraud. He’s itching to do it again,” Smith wrote his attorney in an email on June 4, 2010, Murphy said. That evening, the attorney received an email, purportedly from Smith, declaring he agreed to a buyout from Shin and wished to go on a “surf safari” around the world, Murphy said.
Murphy alleged it was Shin who wrote that email as the start of a drawn-out attempt to cover up the murder.
The next day, Shin emailed company employees that they would have the week off with pay while he negotiated Smith’s future with the company, Murphy said. The prosecutor said Shin spent the days following the killing cleaning up the evidence. Still, when employees returned to work, they were met with such a fetid odor that they attempted to overcome the stench with candles and carpet deodorizer, he said.
Shin kept up an email dialogue masquerading as Smith with the victim’s brother, Paul, who worked at the company, and Smith’s parents for about nine months, Murphy said. But clues popped up throughout that led the family to worry about Smith, Murphy said. Shin said Smith abruptly left his girlfriend of two years to travel the world with a new girlfriend, Tiffany Taylor, Murphy said.
Taylor was an “atmosphere model” at a casino who did not know Chris Smith, Murphy said. Shin had emailed a picture of Taylor — while pretending to be Smith — to the victim’s brother, and it was the same photo of the former Playboy model, Murphy said.
Smith’s father eventually came to Orange County and hired a private investigator to find out what happened to his son, Murphy said. They reported him missing to Laguna Beach police, who eventually handed off the investigation to Orange County sheriff’s detectives because it was determined from forensic evidence that Smith was killed in his office. Investigators never found the body, but believe the victim was beaten to death, Murphy said.
An emotional Shin testified that he was “sorry for what happened… It was an awful thing to do. I caused a lot of people a lot of pain.” Shin testified he didn’t call 911 after the fight because “I was in shock.”
Paul Smith’s testimony was a key to the prosecution, Murphy told reporters after the verdict.
“You really saw the heart of Chris Smith through his brother,” he said.