How Did a Young, Rich Tech Entrepreneur Vanish Into Thin Air After Setting Out to Travel the World?

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In June 2010, California tech entrepreneur Chris Smith emailed his family and friends that he had sold his lucrative debt-consolidation business called 800Xchange and had set off on an epic travel adventure. The 31-year-old former professional wakeboarder had broken up with his long-time girlfriend and boasted over email that he was exploring the coast of South America on a 45-foot yacht — with a Playboy model.

In another email, he said he was sandboarding in South Africa. In yet another, he was paragliding near Johannesburg.

But when Smith’s family encouraged him to call them or send pictures, he would always respond that he was in an area with no cell or phone service.

“I’m off the grid,” he wrote in one exchange.

“It was unusual for him to be that disconnected, but at the same time it was like, good for Chris, this is wonderful because he seems happy,” says private investigator Joe Dalu in Monday’s episode of People Magazine Investigates on Investigation Discovery, airing Nov. 11 at 10 p.m. (An exclusive clip is shown above.)

However, by the fall Smith’s emails had taken a darker turn. “I even contemplated suicide,” he wrote in one email.

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Smith began writing home about traveling to Rwanda and the Congo, and selling South African gold coins. “I’m headed back up through the Congo,” Chris wrote. “I found a dealer in Rwanda that will pay 30 percent markup on krug’s.”

But in late December, all of his emails abruptly stopped. “And then he completely disappeared,” Dalu says.

Smith’s family grew worried, and they reported him missing to the U.S. State Department. To their shock, the family soon learned that Smith had never even left the country.

When the truth about what happened to Smith finally came out, it was far more sinister than anybody believed.

People Magazine Investigates: Vanished airs Monday, Nov. 11 at 10 p.m. on Investigation Discovery.

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