South Korean police raid church compound in hunt for ferry owner

Police raided a church compound today for the second time in two days, in a search for Yoo Byung-eun, believed to be the owner of the Sewol ferry which sank in April.

Suh Myong-geun/Yonhap/AP
Police officers raid into a religious facility of the Evangelical Baptist Church in Anseong, South Korea, Thursday, June 12, 2014. Several thousand police officers, 6,000 on Wednesday and another 3,000 on Thursday, were mobilized to raid the sprawling South Korean church compound near Seoul to hunt for Yoo Byung-eun, a fugitive billionaire businessman and member of the church wanted in relation to the deadly ferry sinking in April.

South Korea’s most wanted man, believed to be the owner of the ferry that capsized and sank in April with 304 people trapped on board, is eluding a massive nationwide dragnet after the second raid in two days Thursday on the sprawling headquarters of his Evangelical Baptist Church.

Several thousand policemen stormed past hundreds of loyal followers of Yoo Byung-eun at the gates of his compound 45 miles south of Seoul and arrested six church members who face charges of hiding the 73-year-old tycoon, a mysterious multi-millionaire with a $500,000 bounty on his head. In addition to Mr. Yoo and his son, authorities are hunting for two senior church officials. 

Korean police and prosecutors are investigating a labyrinth of ruses set up by church members who worship Yoo as a hero. The search for the fugitive church leader involves Korean diplomats and agents of the National Intelligence Service who are looking for clues from Korea to London, Paris, and the US.

“That’s how the leaders of these faith-based groups operate,” says Chang Sung-eun, a member of another spiritual grouping whose thousands of followers avoid the subterfuges of some of its rivals. “People dedicate themselves to the leader. They show terrific loyalty.” 

Church leader and business mogul

To many Koreans, Yoo is a familiar type – a charismatic figure in the tradition of the Rev. Moon Sun-myung, the late founder of the Unification Church, who ran a business empire that extended from Korea to the US and Europe.

South Korea's leaders are facing severe criticism for botching the rescue after the Sewol ferry sank off Korea’s southwestern coast. The captain of the Sewol, the chief engineer, first and second mates, and 11 other crew members  are on trial on charges ranging from homicide to negligence in abandoning the vessel, leaving passengers to drown in the 6,800-ton ship. Divers are still searching for the bodies of 12 missing passengers. Only 172 people among 476 on board survived.

Five of the top officials of Chonghaejin Marine, the company that owns the Sewol, have been indicted for involuntary homicide and negligence. Company executives are accused of ignoring warnings that the ship's steering mechanism was faulty and of overloading the ship.   

Prosecutors have labeled Yoo the country’s “most wanted" criminal. Neither he, nor his son, are listed as owners of Chonghaejin Marine: Yoo allegedly disguised his investment using relatives, friends, and church members as proxies. Prosecutors have accused Yoo of tax evasion and embezzlement uncovered in the aftermath of the disaster.

Officials of the Evangelical Baptist Church have repeatedly denied Yoo's responsibility for the tragedy or theirs in aiding his escape. Instead, they have accused the government of attempting to infringe on their freedom of worship and have vowed to defend him from what they regard as a campaign against him and his church.

“No property or wealth is registered under (Yoo's) name,” says a former church member, talking anonymously for fear of harassment by investigators. “All is handled by a woman named Kim” ­­– his former secretary and CEO of a pharmaceutical company who is reportedly in the US and also on the run. 

Yoo’s far-flung empire includes 26 companies in fields ranging from real-estate and door-to-door selling to cosmetics. His Evangelical Baptist Church, founded 42 years ago, claims 100,000 members, including almost all his company executives and crew members.

From Paris to London

Korean diplomats scored one triumph by persuading French authorities to arrest Yoo’s oldest daughter, Som-na, in Paris, where she runs an interior decorating firm. Korean prosecutors allege that the firm received donations and revenues from Yoo’s businesses. 

Korean prosecutors and intelligence agents have also traced the venues where Yoo displayed what he called his "naturistic” photographs – scenes from nature, many shot from his own lavish home – under the pseudonym, Ahae, an old word for “child.” Among the showcases: London’s Royal Botanic Gardens and the Tuileries Garden and Palaise de Versailles in Paris. 

Yoo got the composer Michael Nyman to name a symphony “Ahae,” performed by the London Symphony Orchestra at Versailles, while his works were on display. 

As the story unfolds, though, Yoo’s past is catching up with him. The most damning story is that of that of the suicide and murder of 32 members of a sub-cult of his church 27 years ago. Yoo avoided charges. 

Nor did Yoo get into trouble after an accident in 1991 involving one of his boats on the Han River in Seoul, in which 14 crew members died. He did, however, wind up spending four years in prison in the 1990s for fraud involving the payoff of company debt with church funds.

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