Fugitive Yoo’s corpse identified after 40 days

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Fugitive Yoo’s corpse identified after 40 days


The 77-year-old farmer who found the remains of Yoo Byung-eun, the 73-year-old de facto owner of the sunken ferry Sewol, shows reporters where he found the corpse in his plum orchard in Suncheon, South Jeolla. By Oh Jong-chan

A decayed corpse found 40 days earlier in a plum orchard in Suncheon, South Jeolla, was identified as Yoo Byung-eun, fugitive owner of the Sewol ferry, police said yesterday.

The announcement opened up a can of worms as to how Yoo came to his grisly end; the competence of the police, prosecution and government in hunting him down; and the real sequence of events behind the announcement.

Police said the cause and exact date of Yoo’s death remain unclear. The National Forensic Service did a second autopsy yesterday to ascertain the cause of death.

The extraordinarily belated discovery of Yoo’s remains is guaranteed to put pressure on President Park Geun-hye, who had promised a national “overhaul” to get beyond the corruption, collusion and incompetence that were considered major contributors to the April 16 sinking of the Sewol, which killed more than 300 people, mostly 11th graders on a school trip.

Although Yoo was the nation’s most wanted fugitive, with 1.3 million police officers mobilized at various times in the manhunt and an unprecedented 500 million won ($486,500) reward offered for information about him, his body lay in a field just 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) from a villa he owned, enough time for most of its flesh to rot or be eaten by animals.

An extensive manhunt for Yoo was conducted in the area on May 25 because Yoo was suspected to be hiding in his villa in Suncheon.

It took nearly six weeks for local police to identify Yoo after his corpse was discovered on June 12. The DNA match was made Monday.

The ruling Saenuri Party and opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy are bitterly disputing a new law to set up a special fact-finding committee to investigate the root causes of the Sewol tragedy, with both the opposition party and relatives of the victims in the tragedy demanding that the investigation have the ability to indict. The Saenuri Party has said that power should be restricted to prosecutors, who now stand accused of bungling the hunt for Yoo.

As patriarch of the family who controlled the operator of the Sewol, Yoo was charged with various financial irregularities and was suspected of unfair business practices that contributed to the capsizing of the ferry including overloading of cargo.

Forensic analyses of both DNA samples and a fingerprint from the corpse matched Yoo, the chief of Suncheon Police Station said yesterday. A 77-year-old farmer surnamed Park first spotted the heavily decomposed body in his plum orchard in Seomyeon, Suncheon, on June 12 and reported it to the police that day.

The site is 2.5 kilometers from Yoo’s private villa where he was presumed to have stayed in May.

“We asked the National Forensic Service to compare the DNA samples of the corpse and those from Yoo, which were secured from his residence and Geumsuwon,” said Woo Hyung-ho, the police chief. Geumsuwon is a religious retreat that caters to members of a religious sect led by the businessman.

The police also said DNA from the corpse matched samples from Yoo’s older brother Yoo Byung-il, 75.

“We confirmed early this morning that a print from the right index finger corresponds to that of Yoo,” Woo said.

When asked by reporters why it took more than a month to match the fingerprints, the chief said two previous attempts failed because the body was so heavily decomposed.

The police chief said the corpse was 80 percent decayed so the DNA had to be extracted from the body’s hipbone.

“We actually tried twice in June for a fingerprint investigation, but we failed,” he continued. “By the time we got the DNA results from the National Forensic Service on Monday, however, the skin of the right hand had dried and we could obtain a print from the index finger.”

But Woo admitted that investigators failed to link the dead body with the fugitive earlier. Woo was relieved of his duties yesterday.

Until recently, investigators said they believe Yoo was on the run with the help of loyalists, particularly adherents of the religious sect he ran known as the Evangelical Baptist Church. On Monday, prosecutors reassured the public that it was “only a matter of time before we capture Yoo” while reissuing an arrest warrant for him.

The police’s explanation about the sequence of events perplexed many and raised many suspicions.

On May 25, prosecutors said that they found Yoo’s body fluids in his Suncheon villa, indicating he was alive around that time. People are questioning how his corpse could decay so quickly after that.

Police said that the corpse was clad in expensive designer clothes, including a Loro Piana parka.

Belongings in a cloth bag next to the corpse also were clues that the corpse was Yoo’s, police admitted.

The bag held an empty bottle for a shark liver oil product made by Hankook Pharmaceutical, a company owned by the Yoo family, the authorities said, citing the farmer who found the remains. The cloth bag was inscribed with the phrase “Love Like a Dream,” which is the title of a book of essays written by Yoo.

The police admitted they should have paid more attention to the items found with the corpse.

“The clothes were expensive and we found items that could be linked with Yoo,” the police chief said. “We should’ve paid more attention. I regret that.”

Also scattered around the body were bottles of soju and makgeolli. This is a mystery: local media outlets noted that, as a religious leader, Yoo was believed to have abstained from alcohol.

Other reports noted that Yoo’s spectacles and a suitcase filled with cash - which police said Yoo always carried - were nowhere to be found.

Meanwhile, some members of the Evangelical Baptist Church said they don’t believe the police’s account.

“At the moment, we do not believe a report that the body of Yoo Byung-eun has been found,” Lee Tae-jong, spokesman of the group, was quoted as saying by Yonhap News Agency.

Forensic experts were also divided by the police’s findings.

Forensic doctor Lee Young-jik, who carried out the first autopsy on the corpse last month, said that the body was smaller and thinner than what was shown on Yoo’s wanted flyer.

“The corpse looked smaller than 165 centimeters and was really small,” Lee said.

“So, when I heard that the body actually belongs to Yoo, I was really puzzled. The body was also so degraded by bacteria and insects that it was almost impossible to identify.”

Lee Yoon-seong, a forensic medicine professor at Seoul National University, said geological factors and the weather can speed up the decaying process.

“Late May and early June is when the weather is really humid and hot,” Lee said. “Under those conditions, a corpse can undergo a rapid decomposition process.”

Tark Ji-il, a religion studies professor at Busan Presbyterian University, said leaders of religious cults are susceptible to suicide.

“We need to keep open all possibilities because the acts of members of religious cults are beyond our understanding,” Tark said.

“We should not downplay the possibility of being murdered as well, because the Baptist Church was affected by severe infighting ever since Yoo was wanted after the ferry disaster.”

Police actually downplayed the possibility of Yoo being murdered yesterday.

Following a nationwide search for Yoo in May, around 5,000 police officers and prosecutors have been solely dedicated to locating the elusive businessman, but they completely failed.

According to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, more than 300 people - including relatives of Yoo, aides, Sewol crew members and government officials - have been indicated in connection with the ferry disaster.

Police said that more details will be announced when the National Forensic Service ends the second autopsy.

“As soon as the investigation ends, we can reveal more about the cause of death and other details,” the police chief said.

BY PARK EUN-JEE, JANG JOO-YOUNG [ejpark@joongang.co.kr]

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.

Rebuttal statement

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.

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