Police confirm fugitive ferry owner found dead

July 22, 2014

DNA, fingerprints match those of Yoo; Prosecution will step up Sewol probe

Police officers and medical staff move the body of Yoo Byung-eun, the de facto owner of the sunken ferry Sewol, into an ambulance at a funeral hall in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province, Tuesday. Yoo's body was moved to a forensic sciences center in Seoul for an investigation into how he died. (Yonhap)

Police officers and medical staff move the body of Yoo Byung-eun, the de facto owner of the sunken ferry Sewol, into an ambulance at a funeral hall in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province, Tuesday. Yoo’s body was moved to a forensic sciences center in Seoul for an investigation into how he died. (Yonhap)

By Jung Min-ho

Yoo Byung-un

Yoo Byung-eun

Police said Tuesday that they had found the body of Yoo Byung-eun, the owner of the sunken ferry Sewol who had been on the run amid an intensifying investigation into what caused the ship tragedy.

The corpse was initially found on June 12 in a field near Yoo’s vacation home in the southwestern city of Suncheon, but police initially failed to realize that it was Yoo because it was “too badly decomposed,” a spokesman said.

DNA samples taken from the corpse exactly matched those of Yoo, and a print taken from his right index finger was also confirmed, they said.

It is still unclear how, and exactly when, he died.

“He might have committed suicide or have been murdered. He could have died while sleeping after drinking too much alcohol,” Woo Hyung-ho, chief of Sucheon Police Station, told reporters. “We are looking into the exact cause of his death.”

Police said that so far there is “no evidence found to believe he was murdered. ” The National Forensic Service (NFS) is looking into whether he was poisoned.

“We believe that forensic analysis and an autopsy by the NFS will reveal more details including the cause of death,” Woo said.

Police said the “seriously decomposed body” was clad in a “Loro Piana” winter jumper and a hat. Empty bottles of makgeolli, soju, a rectangle-shaped magnifying glass along with an empty bottle of shark liver oil made by one of his companies were also found at the scene.

Yoo, 72, became a fugitive immediately after the vessel sank on April 16 off Jindo Island, which claimed 294 lives, mostly high school students, and left 10 people still missing.

The prosecution has vowed to step up its investigation into the ferry disaster in order to get to the bottom of the case and confiscate wealth from the Yoo family in order to secure compensation funds for the victims of the shipwreck.

Prosecutors suspect that corruption by Yoo and his family resulted in lax observance of safety standards, including overloading cargo, that eventually brought about one of the worst maritime disasters in the nation’s history.

A massive manhunt ensued. And the prosecution filed charges of embezzlement, breach of duty and tax evasion against him as the probe proceeded.

Despite the information gathered by police, many questions still remain.

According to members of the Evangelical Baptist Church, a religious cult Yoo and his father-in-law Kwon Sin-chan founded in 1962, Yoo was “certainly alive” on May 25, when some of them saw him.

Also, experts say it is impossible for the body to decay that quickly to become “almost like a skeleton.”

In fact, some officers, who participated in the investigation, raised the possibility that the body could not be Yoo.

“I am 110 percent certain that the decomposed body is not Yoo after decades of experience in the field,” said one police officer, who refused to be named.

The church members also raised questions over the bottles of alcohol beverages found next to him.

“Yoo never drank alcohol,” Lee Tae-jong, spokesman of the group, said. “We believe the body is not Yoo after hearing about the investigation.”

Experts believe “it will be difficult” to find the cause of the death through an autopsy.

“Unless he was poisoned, it will still be difficult to figure out when and how he died,” said Lee Jung-bin, Seoul National University emeritus professor of forensic medicine. “It would be wrong to make a judgment simply based on how decayed the body is, which was found in summer.”

In June, some 6,000 police officers stormed a church complex in Anseong, south of Seoul. But Yoo managed to escape thanks to help from his followers. Four key members of the church were detained on charges of assisting him.

Prosecutors said Monday that 331 people are being investigated for possible involvement in the sinking of the Sewol, and that 139 people — including coast guard officers — have been detained for trial.

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