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South Carolina’s mainstream media is now delving into mysterious circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Tom Sponseller, president and CEO of the S.C. Hospitality Association.

Sponseller, 61, has been missing since Saturday afternoon – and investigators at the Columbia (S.C.) Police Department have been attempting to ascertain his whereabouts ever since. Earlier this week, Sponseller’s friends and family held a public vigil at the S.C. State House while State Senators had a moment of silence in his honor.

As more details emerge about the case, though, it’s becoming clear

A search of Sponseller’s car (which was discovered in its usual spot near his office building) revealed nothing suspicious. Ditto for a search of his office. There’s been no word yet on efforts to track Sponseller’s cell phone or his credit cards – which are also missing – and no information from surveillance cameras has been released.

As the investigation continues, questions have been raised about a possible “money trail” that may be tied to Sponseller’s disappearance.

In fact, picking up on our exclusive report from earlier this week The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper is now confirming that a criminal probe has been launched into allegations of missing money at Sponseller’s organization.

“Multiple law enforcement officials have confirmed an ongoing federal investigation concerning missing money at the S.C. Hospitality Association,” the paper reported on Friday. “The officials described the amount of money as ‘substantial’ – more than $100,000 and possibly up to $900,000.”

(To read The State’s story, click here).

Our sources previously confirmed that “as much as $900,000” may have been embezzled from the organization.

Rachel Duncan

The paper also identifies 41-year-old Rachel Duncan, the association’s former accounting director, as a “person of interest” in the investigation into the missing money. Duncan’s attorney told The State that she was cooperating with authorities. He also said that his client considers Sponseller to be a “close friend.”

FITS did not publish Duncan’s name in our original story at the request of local law enforcement.

So … what the hell is really going on here?

Honestly we’re as stumped as anybody at this point … although three distinct narratives are emerging, none of which bode well for Sponseller.

According to sources close to Sponseller’s family and friends, the retired Air Force officer and graduate of The Citadel was an innocent, unsuspecting victim of foul play. In fact they suggest that the longtime State House lobbyist may have even been lured to his office under false pretenses – perhaps as part of an effort to uncover the missing money.

“He was doing what he always does – trying to help people, trying to do the right thing,” a source close to Sponseller’s family tells FITS.

Others contend that the leader of the state’s influential tourism lobby may have been involved in the embezzlement – and perhaps even romantically-linked to Duncan.

Finally, a third group of sources believes that Sponseller’s disappearance has something to do with the “Coastal Kickback,” a major tourism-related pay-to-play scandal that is the subject of an ongoing federal probe.

“He’s one of two places,” a law enforcement source told us. “Pushing up daffodils or sipping a fruity drink.”

Obviously there’s still a chance that Sponseller’s disappearance is a random act, although at this point that’s looking like an increasingly remote possibility.

FITS has been provided with specific details related to all three of these theories, but at this point we are withholding much of that information at the request of our law enforcement sources.

We can say that police have reportedly reopened an investigation into a single-car accident involving Sponseller that occurred last year. No word yet on what they are hoping to find as a result of that inquiry.

Once again, we would like to remind our readers that anyone with information regarding Sponseller’s disappearance should contact Midlands Crime Stoppers at (888) CRIME-SC or the Columbia Police Department at (803) 545-3500. Anonymous tips can also be emailed to Crimestoppers’ official website, or you can text “TIPSC” to “CRIMES” (274637) with any information you may have regarding Sponseller or any other missing person.