Sect raided but Yoo eludes capture
An eight-hour search ended in failure and Yoo Byung-eun remained at large.
Around 80 investigators and prosecutors entered the fortified retreat called Geumsuwon in Anseong, Gyeonggi, yesterday after receiving the consent of adherents.
A total of 1,300 police guards were also deployed to check cars leaving or entering the compound.
Yoo, the 73-year-old patriarch of the family that allegedly controls the Chonghaejin Marine Company, which operated the ferry that capsized on April 16, faces various charges - including tax evasion and embezzlement - but hasn’t answered prosecution summonses for questioning or attended a court hearing to determine the validity of arrest warrants.
The raid was primarily aimed at finding evidence that might give clues to the current whereabouts of Yoo and back up corruption allegations rather than taking Yoo into custody, according to prosecutors.
Before the raid, authorities admitted there was a low probability that Yoo was hiding in the compound.
Prosecutor Kim Hoe-jong of the Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office said Tuesday that Yoo appeared to have escaped the area Saturday and is now presumed to be hiding in the residence of one of the sect’s followers.
Yoo’s elder son Dae-gyun is also believed to have taken shelter in the religious retreat but his whereabouts are also unknown.
The failure to capture Yoo and his son put investigators in the hot seat after they dispatched police guards and stopped and searched cars entering and leaving the compound since Friday. Yoo is assumed to have used a large influx of worshippers over the weekend as a cover to escape. Approximately 3,000 people visited the compound last weekend.
The sect’s approval of yesterday’s raid was an unexpected turn after they vowed for days to block police by forming human barricades.
They changed their stance after the prosecution accepted their request to acknowledge that a mass suicide in 1987 was not linked to the sect. Some suspect the sect is behind the mysterious mass suicide that claimed 32 lives.
Prosecutors could have forced their way into the compound with a court warrant, but they were worried about physical clashes between police and adherents.
“We received an official notification that we have nothing to do with the [mass suicide] case,” said Lee Tae-jong, an acting spokesperson for the sect known as the Evangelical Baptist Church.
“We concluded that the prosecution expressed due respect to us,” the spokesperson said. “We are taking a step back here.”
Also on the run are Yoo’s elder daughter Som-na and two sons, Hyeok-gi and Dae-gyun. Hyeok-gi is believed to be in the United States and Som-na in Paris.
In order to apply pressure, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday ordered the two to return their passports.
On Tuesday, investigators submitted criminal extradition requests to U.S. and French agencies while the Ministry of Justice asked Interpol to arrest those in overseas countries.
While prosecutors managed to indict crew members of the doomed Sewol, they have had trouble investigating the Yoo family due to refusal to cooperate.
Prosecutors suspect that the family - especially the patriarch - was involved in the unsafe business practices, such as the overloading of the ferry and remodeling it to squeeze in more passengers and cargo.
The investigation into the family’s businesses and assets could be particularly relevant to the compensation for the families of the victims of the April 16 ferry sinking that left more than 300 dead or missing.
The government has used public funds to assist the families of the dead or missing and carry out rescue operations.
But the government is determined to charge expenses to the operator of the ferry through an indemnity suit.
President Park Geun-hye vowed to introduce a special law to attach Yoo’s property.
But prosecutors first have to prove that the elder Yoo is the real owner of Chonghaejin and exerted a direct influence on the company’s decision to overload and remodel the ferry at the expense of passengers’ safety. So far, prosecutors uncovered evidence suggesting Yoo’s influence, including an internal organization chart that names him as president.
As part of the investigators’ bid to pressure Yoo, prosecutors and the National Tax Service yesterday sought the additional seizure of property held by affiliates of Chonghaejin, which are also part of the family business. The assets consist of 28 plots of land and buildings.
BY PARK EUN-JEE [email@example.com]
Correction and rebuttal statement by the Evangelical Baptist Church
The Korea JoongAng Daily, regarding the reports since April 16, 2014, about the Evangelical Baptist Church (EBC) and Yoo Byung-eun, is publishing the following corrections and an excerpt from the rebuttal statement by the EBC.
Through three past investigations by the prosecution, it has been revealed that Yoo and the EBC, also known as the “Salvation Group” and Guwonpa in Korean, are not related to the Odaeyang mass suicide incident. That was also confirmed by the prosecution in its official statement on May 21. The prosecution’s investigation also found that Yoo had not made an attempt to smuggle himself out of the country or seek political asylum in France. We, therefore, correct the concerned reports.
Yoo retired from his executive management position in 1997. He did not own any shares in the noted companies, nor had he managed operations or used the operating funds for personal reasons. There are no grounds to call him the actual owner and chairman of the company. As such, he did not provide any directives in regards to the overloading of the Sewol ferry or its renovation.
It was verified that the captain and crew members who abandoned ship at the time of the Sewol ferry accident are not members of the EBC. It has also been verified that the EBC does not own any shares of Chonghaejin Marine Company and did not engage in its management.
The EBC’s position is that the museums in the United States and Europe can never authorize an exhibition unless the artistic value of an artist’s works is recognized by the screening committee, irrespective of the amount of money an artist donates. The EBC’s position is that the exhibitions were not a result of Mr. Yoo’s patronage or donation, and Yoo also has not coerced Chonghaejin and its affiliates to purchase his photos.
The EBC states that Yoo did not participate in the foundation of the EBC in 1981, and the church does not offer him the title “pastor.” It also says a significant part of the 240 billion won ($206 million) worth of assets suspected of belonging to the Yoo family are real estate properties owned by the farming associations, which had been established by church members.
The EBC states that there are certain churches in Korea that call the EBC a cult, solely based on differences between their’s and the EBC’s doctrines.
But the EBC does not worship a particular individual as a religious sect leader or preach any doctrine that contradicts the Bible.