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Man’s disappearance ‘highly suspicious,’ officials say

Times Staff Writer

The two business partners boarded the 23-foot sailboat in Dana Point on Saturday evening, authorities said, supposedly heading to San Clemente Island to seal a lucrative deal with a mysterious government agency.

When the beat-up boat returned to shore in Long Beach on Tuesday, only one of the partners was on board.

Orange County sheriff’s deputies are investigating the “highly suspicious” disappearance of Robert Vendrick, 71, a retired software programmer from Phoenix who has not been in touch with family since Feb. 15, said sheriff’s spokesman Jim Amormino.

Gary Shawkey, 44, a self-proclaimed Internet marketing guru and motivational speaker from Virginia, has been questioned twice by sheriff’s investigators after arriving alone on the boat and is “a person of interest,” Amormino said. Shawkey was probably the last person who saw Vendrick, he said.

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Vendrick’s family fears he has fallen victim to a get-rich-quick scheme gone bad.

He flew to Southern California on Feb. 15 to meet with Shawkey, who had convinced him to invest $1 million in a highly secretive software program for the federal government, family members told authorities.

Shawkey told Vendrick that they had to travel to San Clemente Island, 60 miles offshore, to meet with “highly placed government officials” who would pay them $1.2 million, according to Amormino.

Vendrick earlier had wired $60,000 to a Wells Fargo Bank branch in Laguna Niguel as part of the plan, said his younger brother Fred, who also invested $40,000.

Fred Vendrick said he realized too late that Shawkey may have been trying to swindle his brother.

“In retrospect, he was suckering my poor brother, and over the period he knew him, Bob was the investor and Shawkey was the guy sucking up the money,” he said.

Fred Vendrick, who lives in Hermosa Beach, said he knew his brother had been intensely involved in the business deal with Shawkey for several months and had met him before his trip to Dana Point. He said his brother had no sailing experience.

Robert Vendrick’s family first became concerned when he didn’t call his wife, Carole, over the weekend. When he missed his US Airways flight from Long Beach Airport on Monday, his wife reported him missing.

At 4:30 p.m. Feb. 15, Vendrick checked in at the Dana Point Marina Inn, just a few hundred feet from the harbor. The hotel’s general manager said there was “nothing out of the ordinary” about his stay.

When sheriff’s investigators searched his room Monday, they found several indications Vendrick did not intend to be gone for long: The fireplace was burning, his clothes and suitcase were laid out, and he had left behind the diabetes medicine he took at least once a day, according to his brother.

“He wouldn’t have left without that if he was expecting to be gone for more than a day,” Fred Vendrick said.

The sailboat, named the Odyssey, which Shawkey bought for a small sum under his and Vendrick’s name in San Clemente on Feb. 14, was in “terrible condition,” Amormino said. “This was not one that you would take from Dana Point to San Clemente Island.”

There was no evidence they made it to the island, which is owned by the U.S. Navy and used for training exercises, he said.

On Thursday, Sheriff’s Department Harbor Patrol divers searched for Vendrick in five locations in and around Dana Point Harbor but concluded in midafternoon without finding anything, Amormino said.

The Coast Guard ended its helicopter search for the sailboat after Shawkey called sheriff’s deputies from a phone booth near the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach about 8 p.m. Tuesday.

The sailboat was found tied up at a temporary mooring in nearby Shoreline Marina.

Shawkey, who last lived in Mechanicsville, Va., is the president of the Internet-based company Gary Shawkey International Inc. In 2003 he published a self-help book called “If I Can . . . Anybody Can.”

While living in Florida five years ago, Shawkey tried to walk across 200 feet of 1,800-degree coals, the St. Petersburg Times reported. Rain fizzled his plans to break a Guinness world record.

While Vendrick’s family held out hope for his safety, they feared the worst.

“Right now they’re dredging Dana Point Harbor for my brother,” Fred Vendrick said Thursday afternoon. “I hope they find him safe, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to end well.”

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tony.barboza@latimes.com

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Times researcher Robin Mayper contributed to this report.


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