Prosecutors chasing Yoo Byung-eun, the de facto owner of the operator of the sunken Sewol ferry, arrested four of the followers of his religious sect yesterday on suspicion of helping him escape from police.
A group of investigators raided residences of the adherents of the Evangelical Baptist Church, a Christian sect led by Yoo, between Saturday evening and yesterday morning, to arrest them. They questioned the followers on the whereabouts of Yoo and his eldest son, Yoo Dae-gyun, who have refused to be questioned on their management of the ferry’s operator, Chonghaejin Marine Company, since the tragic sinking.
Prosecutors said they confirmed the followers helped the 73-year-old Yoo run away from police arrest. On May 19, Yoo was allegedly snuck out of the church’s complex in Anseong, Gyeonggi, as policemen and reporters were blocked from entering the compound, called Geumsuwon, by followers assembled at the main gate for days. According to prosecutors, Yoo stayed in Suncheon, South Jeolla, after the escape from Geumsuwon.
Followers of the church, better known as Guwonpa or the Salvation Sect, said at the time they had no idea of the whereabouts of Yoo and they insisted that the church had nothing to do with the sinking of the ferry, which claimed more than 288 lives.
Nine days after prosecutors asked to search the compound in a remote and mountainous part of Anseong, the adherents finally opened the gates. But investigators didn’t find Yoo or his son. Investigators suspect that Yoo’s allegedly illegal business practices, such as overloading ships, led to the Sewol tragedy. Yoo and his son are also suspected of tax evasion and embezzlement.
Prosecutors have warned the public that even lending a cell phone or offering food to the absconding sect leader and businessman can be grounds for punishment.
After searching several possible hideouts, the prosecution raised the reward for anyone providing details on the whereabouts of Yoo to 500 million won ($487,567) from the 50 million won they announced last week and to 100 million won from 30 million won for details about his eldest son. The total reward of 600 million won is the biggest in a single criminal case, the prosecution said.
About 600 adherents of the church held a rally in front of the Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office yesterday to protest the arrest and questioning of their fellows. They claimed the arrested followers had nothing to do with Yoo’s escape and chanted slogans such as, “Prosecutors are violating human rights” and “Punish them for trespassing in private houses.”
Investigators are now worried that Yoo may have escaped abroad via ship. Yoo entered the ferry business in 1989 and his Semo Group grew into the biggest ferry operator by 1997, operating 27 ships. He has ties with many people in the shipping industry who could help him get to China, Japan, Russia or Southeast Asia. “As he previously ran a ferry business, he could attempt to stow away to get abroad anytime he wants,” a police official told the JoongAng Ilbo. “As he possesses several companies abroad, including in China, we see a possibility that he could flee abroad.”
BY KIM HEE-JIN[firstname.lastname@example.org]