[UPDATED with Defense Move to Dismiss Criminal Case:] Christopher Ryan Smith's Family Sues Alleged Killer, His Accomplice, Employees and Family
See the update at the end of this post about the accused killer's defense filing a writ in the Court of Appeals to dismiss the criminal case. Also, the marital status of the victim's parents has been corrected in the original post.
ORIGINAL POST, OCT. 17, 3:29 P.M.: The family of the late Christopher Ryan Smith, whose body has never been found, is suing his accused murderer and business partner Edward Younghoon Shin in Orange County Superior Court. Steve and Debi Smith accuse Shin of stealing their son's identity so he could cash in on the former pro wakeboarder's assets. The Smiths in February filed a $30 million lawsuit against the city of Laguna Beach claiming its police force botched the murder probe now being conducted by the Orange County Sheriff's Department.
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But, as detailed by Courthouse News, the legal complaint against Shin includes many details that will no doubt come out in his murder trial. Sheriff's investigators claim the Irvine family man confessed to the slaying, but he pleaded not guilty last May.
It's easier to make sense out of the Smith family suit against Shin, the 800 Exchange business he and Smith co-founded, 800 Exchange vice president Ernesto Aldover, Shin's parents James and Karen Shin and Shin's accused accomplice Kenny Kraft if we back up several years and work through to where things stand today.
2008: Smith worked for LeadPoint, a Los Angeles company that generated leads for salesmen, while Shin was with competitor LG Technologies in the San Fernando Valley. Despite being promoted to president of LG, Shin secretly started a third lead generator, LP Services. As the head of LG, Shin hired Smith as a consultant, and LeadPoint fired Smith the same day. Smith cut ties with LG by the end of the year.
March 2009: Shin left LG under a cloud of controversy.
April 2009: LG sued Shin, Smith and others in Riverside County Superior Court, alleging fraud, collusion, theft of leads, misappropriation of trade secrets and more. Shin alone was accused of funneling $1 million of LG's money into starting up LP, and LG went after his and his wife's joint bank account. The same day the suit was filed, Shin and Smith co-founded 800 Exchange. According to the Smith family suit, Shin convinced Smith to have Aldover, who is also a lawyer, defend him in the LG case, knowing that as "an inexperienced and malleable solo practitioner working out of a storefront office in Torrance," Aldover would provide incompetent counsel and leave Shin with a financial advantage in their company.
Late 2009: Police arrest Shin for embezzling money from LG. According to the family suit, this marks Smith's first fears something's "fishy" with his partner.
May 2010: Shin cuts deals to plead no contest to embezzlement to avoid prison time and settle with LG for $700,000, which included the company dropping its claims against other defendants, including Smith. But Smith now wanted nothing to do with the "confessed embezzler" and made arrangements to have Shin buy him out of 800 Exchange for $1 million, the family suit maintains.
June 2, 2010: In an email to Smith, Aldover writes: "Based on our discussions, I will insist that the moneys [for the buyout] be put in an escrow first and that the operating agreement be signed before you sign the settlement."
June 4, 2010: Shin is supposed to complete the buyout, but Smith writes in an email to Aldover that he fears his partner may be up to something and suggests moving the funds to a management company first "to make sure he [Shin] doesn't have room for fraud. He is itching to do it again. Also, we need all statements up to prior day of all activity in the US Louvers account given to us. It can be provided by the bank if need so Ed [Shin] doesn't white out anything WHICH HE WILL TRY." (Note: Brackets and capitals are in the complaint.)
(That was the last day anyone saw Smith alive. The family, sheriff's investigators and the Orange County District Attorney's office believe Shin lured Smith to 800 Exchange under the pretenses of completing the buyout, murdered his partner and, with Kraft's help, disposed of the body, cleaned up the office and repainted it.)
Summer 2010: "Chris" began emailing his family, supposedly from around the world, as he traveled off his 800 Exchange windfall. "He" wrote of renting a yacht and hiring a captain and cook in South America. A later email told of sailing around the tip of Argentina while cryptically noting, "I love it down here, might never come back. HA. Just kidding."
August 2010: "Chris" wrote his family about "doing the unspeakable."
September 2010: "Chris" wrote he was doing drugs, feeling depressed and contemplating suicide. At the same time, Paul Smith, the missing man's brother, received emails from "Chris" saying he was feeling fine, inviting Paul to meet up with him in Costa Rica.
November 2010: An email to Smith's parents told of a pending trip to Morocco via Cyprus before sailing to Egypt and going off to the Serengeti and the Congo.
December 2010: Aldover received an email from "Chris" stating he had withdrawn all his assets from U.S. accounts and was living out his life abroad. "He" later mentioned a trip to Rwanda.
March 2011: No longer receiving emails and fearing Chris had been killed or committed suicide in Africa, the family filed a missing person report with the U.S. State Department. The State Department advised filing a report with the local police agency where Chris lived. That turned out to be Laguna Beach, but the family claims police dragged their feet, which formed the basis of their later lawsuit against the city.
July 2011: Two private investigators the Smith family hired rented space in the same San Juan Capistrano building as 800 Exchange. When one P.I. noticed traces of blood on a door jam, the Orange County Sheriff's Department was contacted, because that agency is the city's police contractor. Sheriff's detectives say they found evidence of "a lot of blood" in the 800 Exchange office. DNA testing confirmed it was Chris Smith's blood. Shin was now a murder suspect.
Aug. 28, 2011: While under surveillance, Shin was seen trying to board a plane for Canada at Los Angeles International Airport. He was arrested and later charged with special circumstances murder for financial gain. Investigators say Shin confessed to the murder, but he has reportedly recanted since.
Aug. 30, 2011: Kraft was arrested for allegedly helping Shin dispose of Smith's clothing and personal belongings, including his 2009 Range Rover, which was later found in San Jose.
Aldover, other named defendants and other unnamed Shin family members and business associates are accused in the suit of having helped in the deception, which had Shin stringing the Smith family along long enough to complete the transfer of Smith's funds into Shin's bank accounts in the Cayman Islands in December 2010.
Represented by Los Angeles lawyer Nicholas Hornberger, the Smiths, who
are divorced and reside in Bend, Oregon and used to live in Central California, are seeking unspecified damages for wrongful death by homicide and emotional distress by Shin, fraud by identity theft against Shin and Kraft, legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty by Aldover and fraud through conspiracy by the other defendants. (*corrected paragraph; the Smiths have been married for 36 years, according to Debi Smith, and are still going "stronger than ever.")
Shin has a Nov. 2 motion hearing scheduled in the criminal case, which could send him to prison for life without parole with a conviction.
UPDATE, OCT. 18, 2:12 P.M.: After our original post was published, the Weekly was contacted by veteran Irvine defense attorney Mark Devore, who is working with Santa Ana lawyer Al Stokke's office on the Shin defense.
Devore wanted us to know that on Oct. 13 he filed a writ in the state Court of Appeals seeking the dismissal of special circumstances murder charges against his client "due to insufficient evidence having been presented at the preliminary hearing."
As such, the defense is seeking a stay of the Nov. 2 motion hearing, added Devore, who noted he has nothing to do with the defense of Shin in the civil lawsuit filed by Chris Smith's family.
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