Ed Shin and Chris Smith were business partners before a murder and elaborate cover-up drew a national spotlight on Smith’s disappearance and landed Shin behind bars for the rest of his life.
Smith and Shin met and formed an instant connection. They were good friends, and set out to form a joint venture as business partners, forming the lead generation company, 800XChange, according to the Orange County Register.
Smith was a lifelong surfer and became a professional wakeboarder straight out of high school, but an injury ended his career early. He set out to form his own company, Swellster.com, a social media platform for surfers. Smith spoke to SFGATE about the company in 2005, along with his then-business partner, Bryan Barton. Years later, he would form another business partnership that would end his life.
The story is being told on a repeat episode of ABC 20/20, “Cutthroat Inc.,” at 9 p.m. EST Friday, August 7, 2020.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Ed Shin Created a Fantasy Life for Chris Smith After His Murder, Posing as Smith in Emails & Saying He Was Travelling the World With a Playmate
About one week after Chris Smith’s death, Ed Shin sent emails from Smith’s account to his girlfriend and family members, saying he was travelling the world with a Playboy Playmate. He had already hacked Smith’s email to send an attorney a fraudulent $1.5 million buyout agreement, giving himself full control over the company, the Orange County Register reported. The emails spun a tale of leaving behind life in the fast lane and the daily grind of work to lead a free-spirited life of adventure.
“Need to just get out of the matrix and find myself,” said an email to Smith’s mom, according to the Register.
He said he was headed toward the Galapagos Islands, and then South America. He said he did not have his phone, and described epic adventures, like backpacking through South America, making a friend with a person who had a yacht and sailing to Egypt, and finding a conflict diamond he planned to give his brother, Paul, for his birthday.
But his family had suspicions. Smith’s brother asked for a picture of the Playmate Smith was supposedly traveling with. Shin sent a professional photo of a woman in a bikini. Shortly after that, in a strange coincidence, the woman walked up to Paul, who was having dinner in Las Vegas. She was a model hired to mingle with guests. Paul asked why she wasn’t with his brother. She said she didn’t know what he was talking about.
His parents’ suspicions rose. His mom sent an email in December, which said, “It seemed fishy to dad and I. We had not heard from you since Nov. 1st and with that story we heard, we thought maybe you had been killed and Ed had covered it up … posing as you in the emails … but a lot of your emails sounded like you.”
An email from Smith’s dad said, “If this is Ed (S)hin, and I find out you have hurt or injured either of my sons I am going to (expletive) you up. Your nightmare has just begun.”
The emails from Smith’s account spoke of suicidal feelings and anger, then abruptly stopped. Smith’s dad filed a missing persons report in April 2011.
2. Ed Shin & Chris Smith Were Fast Friends Who Launched 800XChange, a Lead-Generation Company
Ed Shin and Chris Smith quickly formed a friendship that led to a business partnership. Smith had already formed an online company, Swellster.com, a social media platform for surfers. Shin and Smith decided to form a new company, 800XChange, which was a lead generation company. Smith had the creative drive, and Shin had the money-oriented business mind, the Orange County Register reported.
Smith moved into a Laguna Beach apartment with his girlfriend, and convinced his brother to move with his wife and children to work with him in the company.
Their differing personalities were apparent in their approach to work, the Register reported. Shin worked strict business hours, and Smith would arrive to the office late in the afternoon and work late into the night.
Before 800XChange, Shin graduated from the University of California San Diego and worked for a short time at major companies, including Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley. Smith only attended one year of college, he told SFGATE.
“That was it. I just had too many ideas that I wanted to do that didn’t fit with college,” Smith said.
3. Chris Smith Was a Professional Wakeboarder Until He Suffered a Career-Ending Injury
Chris Smith was a professional wakeboarder who began a career in the water sport right out of high school, according to the Orange County Register. However, he suffered an injury that ended his career early. It was that injury, in part, that led him to form a partnership with Ed Shin, who would end his life.
Smith started surfing when he was only 8 years old. He grew up in Watsonville, California, which is between Santa Cruz and Monterrey. At the time of his death, he was living in Laguna Beach with his girlfriend.
Smith’s career-ending injury led him to begin work in online companies. Among them was a website he founded called Swellster, a social media platform for surfers. Smith and partner Bryan Barton spoke to SFGATE about the company in 2005.
“It’s a surf social network where you are able to post a profile, interact with other people, connect as groups,” Smith told the publication.
4. Ed Shin Faced Criminal Charges From a Previous Business Venture & Chris Smith Wanted More Transparency at 800Xchange
Edward Shin faced criminal charges in a $600,000 embezzlement scheme involving LG Technologies, a lead-generation company in Riverside County, California that previously employed Shin. The company discovered the scheme in 2009. In 2010, Shin pleaded guilty to embezzlement and agreed to pay $800,000 to settle a lawsuit LG Technologies filed against him, according to ABC News.
Paying restitution would allow Shin to escape prison time, but he also had gambling debts to pay off. Shin needed Smith to sign off on an agreement that would allow him to pay off the funds, according to ABC News.
Shin was required to pay the restitution in five months. Smith told Shin he would only give him the sign-off if he agreed to increased financial transparency, including audits and co-signatures at 800XChange, the Orange County Register reported. Shin entered his guilty plea in May 2010. Less than one month later, on June 4, 2010, Smith was killed. After the murder, Shin hacked Smith’s email account and sent Smith’s attorney a fraudulent buyout agreement, giving himself full control of the company.
5. Ed Shin Holds to His Story That Chris Smith’s Death Was an Accident, & Says He Doesn’t Know Where the Body Is
Ed Shin testified in his own defense at trial, claiming Chris Smith “blew up at” him during an argument at their office June 4, 2010, the Los Angeles Times reported. He accused Smith of being complicit in the $600,000 embezzlement from his former employer, and said he could prove it. He claimed Smith was enraged, grabbed him by the throat, repeatedly lunged at him and punched him.
Shin claimed Smith lunged at him and they collided in mid-air, causing Smith to hit his head on a desk. He said he watched Smith as he bled on the floor in the fetal position, but claimed he did not call 911 because he thought police would not believe him. A jury did not believe him, either. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Even behind bars, he holds to his story that the death was accidental. He repeated the claims in a series of interviews with ABC News. He further said he hired someone to get rid of Smith’s body, but never got his name. Police believe Shin hid the body himself, while Shin contends he has no idea where the body is, and claims there is more to the story.
“You have to think about it,” Shin told 20/20. “If someone’s willing to give up his life to protect a secret, there’s a reason.”