Man Wanted in Fatal South Korean Ferry Disaster Found Dead

In this April 17, 2014 file photo, South Korean Coast Guard officers search for missing passengers aboard sunken ferry Sewol in the waters off the southern coast near Jindo, South Korea.
In this April 17, 2014 file photo, South Korean Coast Guard officers search for missing passengers aboard sunken ferry Sewol in the waters off the southern coast near Jindo, South Korea. –Ahn Young-joon/AP

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s most wanted man, a church leader and businessman whom prosecutors had hoped to arrest in connection with an April ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people, has been found dead, the police said on Tuesday.

The man, Yoo Byung-eun, had been the target of the country’s largest manhunt ever since a court issued an arrest warrant for him in May on charges of embezzlement, breach of trust and tax evasion. Prosecutors sought to arrest him as one of those who had contributed to the sinking of the 6,825-ton ferry Sewol.

They said they had determined that Yoo, 73, was a real owner and top manager of Chonghaejin Marine Co., the operator of the ferry. Yoo and members of his family strained the company’s finances by taking large sums, forcing it to spend little on the safety training for the ferry’s crew, the prosecutors said.

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“National forensic officials told us that a DNA test showed that it was him,’’ said Woo Hyong-ho, chief of the police in Suncheon, a city near the southern coast of South Korea.

Woo said his investigators took a fingerprint from the body, which was badly decomposed, and determined that it was Yoo’s.

“So far, we haven’t found any sign that he was murdered,’’ the police chief said, adding that officials were investigating the cause.

The body was found on June 12 by a farmer in an apricot orchard in Suncheon, but it could not immediately be identified. Unable at first to get a fingerprint from the body, the authorities sent away a bone sample for a DNA test.

The test result came in late Monday after forensic experts compared the DNA sample with that of one of Yoo’s brothers, who was under arrest on charges of embezzlement. The experts concluded that the body was that of Yoo Byung-eun. The police in Suncheon scrutinized the body again on Tuesday, and this time they were able to collect a print from one of the fingers.

“Our initial handling of the case was less than appropriate,’’ said Woo, acknowledging that his officers had not imagined that the body might be Yoo’s when it was found.

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Photographs of Yoo had been posted at train and bus stations across the country. Until now, prosecutors and the police said they still believed that he was at large, aided by loyal members of the Salvationists, a Christian sect that he helped found in the 1960s. Prosecutors have indicted 13 Salvationists on charges of helping Yoo elude arrest.

Nearly 10,000 police officers were mobilized when prosecutors raided a church commune south of Seoul on June 11 in search of him.

The authorities were also looking for his son Yoo Dae-kyoon, who was believed to be in South Korea, and they asked the Justice Department in the United States for help in apprehending another son, Keith H. Yoo, who they said owned property and lived there.

One of Yoo’s daughters, Yoo Some-na, was caught at her Paris apartment in May. South Korea wanted Yoo’s children abroad to be extradited here to face charges of embezzling millions of dollars from companies controlled by the family.

The ferry capsized off southwestern South Korea on April 16 after making a sharp turn. So far, 294 people have been found dead, with 10 missing and believed dead. The disaster was South Korea’s worst in recent decades and traumatized the nation. Most of the victims were high school students on a holiday trip to the southern island of Jeju. The ship’s crew repeatedly told passengers to stay inside the ship even as it was slowly sinking, according to investigators and survivors.

Investigators said the ship was carrying twice as much cargo as it was allowed, with not enough ballast water at its bottom to keep the ship stable. They accused the ferry company’s management of colluding with dock workers and shipping regulators so it could routinely overload the ship to generate profits.

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So far, 63 crew members, ferry company officials, government regulators and others have been arrested on murder, negligence and other various criminal charges.

President Park Geun-hye has apologized several times for failing to prevent the disaster and promised to reform her government for better oversight of the safety standards of her country’s industries.

The ferry’s captain and 14 crew members went on trial last month.

Prosecutors charged the captain, Lee Jun-seok, 68, and three other senior crew members with murder, saying they did little to evacuate the passengers even though they had the means to do so. Instead, prosecutors said, they fled the ferry without telling the passengers to flee, “leaving those who waited a further instruction from the crew under the cold sea.’’