BEDFORD, N.Y. — With its blue-and-gold regalia and its link to French royalty, the chocolate shop by the Bedford Hills train station looked as if it would fit right in when it opened several years ago in this well-to-do suburb.
Now, it is an unlikely portal to a drama unfolding thousands of miles away, as the cobwebs on its front door and the broken glass on its side entrance faintly hint.
After an overloaded ferry sank April 16 in South Korea, taking 304 people, mostly schoolchildren, down with it, the South Korean police have arrested dozens of crew members, inspectors, regulators, emergency medical workers and executives connected to Chonghaejin Marine, the company that operated the Sewol, the ill-fated ferry.
Through Interpol, South Korea has sought other countries’ help in capturing members and some confidants of the far-flung Yoo family who already face charges back home for embezzlement and other financial crimes. Prosecutors say they are building a case showing that these key insiders controlled the ferry company through a web of companies and drained it of assets that could have been spent on safety. South Korean tax authorities have also pressed their foreign counterparts to see if the family is hiding assets abroad that could compensate the victims’ families.
One of those facing charges in South Korea is Yoo Hyuk-kee, who was being groomed to take over the family empire from its patriarch, Yoo Byung-eun. The younger Yoo, 41, also known as Keith Yoo, is an owner of at least two homes in Westchester County. It is not clear whether he has been in them recently.
American authorities say he might not even be in the country.
It was Yoo who persuaded Debauve & Gallais, the Paris-based chocolate business that got its start pampering royals two centuries ago, to give him the rights to sell its chocolates in the United States, friends and business associates recalled.
He heralded the opening of the flagship store on Madison Avenue with a celebrity-filled gala at the Pratt House in January 2005. That was accompanied by a wholesale business selling to places like Barneys and the opening of a satellite store in Bedford, near the train station.
Though Yoo sold the products here, Debauve & Gallais had no connection to the ferry company and was not under the Yoos’ control. But the Bedford address that Yoo used for the store has been a hub for other family enterprises. Judging from various government filings, the building has at some point been home to Tea of Teas, an offshoot of the family’s green-tea plantations; Naeclear Consulting, tied to the patriarch’s specially designed enema kits; and Ahae Press Inc., which publishes and promotes the patriarch’s photos.
Two charities have also used the address. One is Evangelical Media Group, a tax-exempt organization that Yoo helped found in 1990 with his future father-in-law for the purpose of “advancing the teachings and beliefs of the Korean Evangelical Baptist Church,’’ which his father led. The group later moved to an office in Mount Kisco but left a few months ago, said the landlord, who had no forwarding address.
The second charity is the quirkily named Hemato-Centric Life Institute, which lists Yoo as the chairman of its board. The organization’s stated mission is the promotion of “research and educational activities focused on the importance of blood’’ to public health. Yet, the institute put up $289,000 in 2011, almost half of what it spent that year, on something termed “GC event,’’ apparently referring to an exhibit of the patriarch’s nature photographs held that year in Grand Central Terminal.
Among the ways that South Korean authorities said the Yoo family sapped the ferry company of cash was to have it buy some of the patriarch’s photos at fanciful prices. The company, prosecutors say, also dangerously overloaded the ferry with cargo, then reduced the amount of the ballast water so that, to inspectors onshore, the boat would not appear weighted down. That made the ferry more prone to tipping, which is what happened on April 16.
The Yoos’ defenders argue that the government is making a scapegoat of the family to draw attention from its own poor emergency response to the ferry’s sinking. Asked about the rationale for the charity’s underwriting a photo exhibit, a public relations firm that has been representing Ahae Press and Keith Yoo declined to provide details, and a reporter who visited the office that Hemato-Centric now shares with Ahae Press in Mount Kisco was turned away. Messages left by reporters over the last month on the phone and in person at Yoo’s homes and offices have not been answered.
Last month, federal agents visited a Pound Ridge home, on a 10-acre property, that Yoo and his wife, Elizabeth, a Harvard-trained lawyer, bought in 2007 for $3.5 million, according to a neighbor. The couple also own a home in Bedford, on 4 acres. They paid $2.75 million for that property, which they have described as a guesthouse for visiting business associates. Other joint assets include a condominium atop the Ritz-Carlton in Battery Park City and a million-dollar home in Yucaipa, California, near a lavender farm and resort that the Yoo family controls.
Two siblings of Yoo who were wanted in South Korea have been apprehended. As for the family’s patriarch, he was found dead on June 12 in an apricot orchard in South Korea; the cause remains unknown.
Sally Siano, a Bedford real estate broker who owns the space that Keith Yoo arranged to lease some years ago for the various businesses, including the chocolate shop, called Yoo and his business associates “polite, well-dressed, wonderful tenants,’’ and probably the “nicest people we’ve ever had.’’ Neither she nor her son Craig Siano, who works for her, had any inkling that the Yoos might be tied to the ferry, they said.
Catering to a clientele that could afford to splurge as much on a single chocolate as others spend on a cappuccino, the Manhattan flagship of Debauve & Gallais operated for a few years before closing, although nearby department stores continue to carry some of the wares.
For now, the future of the Bedford outlet, where damaged glass on the side entrance has remained unattended for weeks, is unclear. The store is often closed, people who live nearby said. Fans are being advised that they can still go online to place their names on a waiting list for chocolate coins favored by Marie Antoinette, priced at $200 a box.
Siano said that his tenants had maintained their spotless record. “They wire the rent from California every month on time,’’ he said.