An Irvine man was convicted Friday of first-degree murder in the 2010 death and disappearance of his business partner, despite the claim that he killed him accidentally during a “fight gone bad.”
An Orange County Superior Court jury deliberated for about an hour before delivering the verdict against Edward Younghoon Shin, 40, who ran a debt-consolidation business called 800XChange with Chris Smith, 33, of Laguna Beach.
At his trial, Shin took the stand and claimed that Smith “blew up at me” during an argument at their San Juan Capistrano office on the afternoon of June 4, 2010.
Shin, who had embezzled money from a former employer, said he accused Smith of being complicit in the theft and could furnish proof. Shin said his infuriated partner grabbed him by the throat, lunged at him repeatedly and threw punches.
“He was relentless,” Shin said, adding that he and Smith leaped at each other and collided in midair, and that the melee culminated in Smith falling and hitting his head on a desk.
Shin said he watched Smith lie on the carpet in a fetal position, blood pooling under his head, but did not call 911 because he was scared, in shock and convinced that no one would believe him.
For help disposing of the body, Shin said, he called Las Vegas contacts, one of whom went by the name “Johnny Vegas.” This led to Shin’s supposed meeting, the day after Smith’s death, with a mysterious Eastern European man at a Long Beach gas station.
Shin said he never caught the man’s name but gave him $10,000 to $15,000 in cash and a Google map to the office where his business partner lay dead.
Shin said that when he returned to the office, Smith’s body was gone but the carpet and walls were covered with blood. He said he went to a hardware store to buy cleaning supplies and hired carpet cleaners out of the PennySaver. He rented fans and repainted the office walls but had trouble masking all the blood spots.
Shin told employees to take the week off so they wouldn’t come upon the mess and gave them bonuses. “I was a nervous wreck,” Shin said. “I had so many conflicting emotions, it’s hard to describe them all.”
Shin said he stocked up on beef jerky at Costco and planned to take a rental car into Mexico to start a new life, but couldn’t bear the thought of leaving his three small children.
To create the impression that Smith was still alive, Shin acknowledged, he sent multiple emails from his dead partner’s account.
The emails went to Smith’s lawyer, claiming Shin was buying him out of the business; to Smith’s girlfriend, claiming he was leaving her to travel the world with a former Playboy model; and to Smith’s family, suggesting he was suicidal and planned to sail the pirate waters off the Somali coast.
“It was a terrible thing to do, to try to convince somebody’s family their dead son is still alive and traveling,” Shin said.
Shin also acknowledged that he had faked his own kidnapping years earlier and blamed the misbegotten scheme — which targeted his father for ransom money — on the influence of pain medication.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Matt Murphy mocked Shin’s account of the fight with Smith as “cartoonish in its stupidity,” arguing that Shin murdered his partner either by bludgeoning him or stabbing him.
The killing allowed Shin to take Smith’s share of company profits and to forge his signature on documents that settled Shin’s pending embezzlement case without prison time, the prosecutor said.
Murphy said Shin had buried the body in the desert and fabricated the story about the Eastern European man. “In the liar Olympics, you are looking at the gold-medal winner on the planet Earth,” Murphy said.
During cross-examination, Murphy asked Shin why, during an interview with a detective, he had omitted the detail about Smith grabbing him by the throat.
“Probably something that slipped my mind,” Shin said.
Murphy said that if Shin was telling the truth, the condition of the victim’s skull — bearing a single impact wound from a desk — would corroborate his story. Murphy asked him to divulge the location of Smith’s body, but Shin insisted he did not know.
“The body sets him free, and he makes no effort to find it,” Murphy told jurors during his closing argument Thursday. “Somewhere out there right now, in between a couple of bushes in the sand, there’s a grave that gets a little older every year.”
Murphy said Shin was a craps addict who gambled so heavily in Las Vegas that the Encore hotel would comp him a luxurious suite. Murphy pointed to an email Shin sent at 6:01 p.m., soon after Smith died, pretending to be Smith, saying Shin would buy him out of the company.
“That is not a man in a panic,” Murphy said. “That’s written by a coldblooded killer who’s trying to take the man’s money.”
In his closing argument, defense attorney T. Edward Welbourn acknowledged that Shin “did a lot of bad things after Chris’ death,” including the emotional “torture” of Smith’s loved ones, but said that it was not a case of first-degree murder.
The defense attorney characterized Smith as a paranoid, stress-burdened conspiracy theorist who thought he was being tormented by an ominous entity called “the Matrix.”
In the argument preceding his death, the defense said, Smith feared he would go to jail because Shin claimed he could prove Smith had a hand in embezzling money from their former employer.
“If he had planned to murder Chris, he wouldn’t have done it at the office,” Welbourn said. “There’s a million different ways he could have killed Chris.”