Body of fugitive South Korea ferry owner is found

Remains found in plum orchard of Yoo, the target of country’s largest manhunt

Policemen push a stretcher with a body believed to be that of Yoo Byung-un, who headed the family that owned the operator of a ferry that capsized in April, killing more than 300 people. Photograph: Park Cheol-hong/Yonhap/Reuters

Policemen push a stretcher with a body believed to be that of Yoo Byung-un, who headed the family that owned the operator of a ferry that capsized in April, killing more than 300 people. Photograph: Park Cheol-hong/Yonhap/Reuters

Tue, Jul 22, 2014, 08:00

A body found more than a month ago in a South Korean plum orchard has been identified by authorities as that of a businessman who headed the family that owned the operator of a ferry that capsized in April, killing more than 300 people.

Police told reporters today that DNA and fingerprint evidence from the body found on June 12th in the south of the country showed it to be that of Yoo Byung-un, the target of South Korea’s largest manhunt for more than two months.

Failure of authorities to apprehend Mr Yoo had become a further political headache for President Park Geun-hye, whose government came under heavy criticism for its handling of the ferry disaster in which most of the victims were children.

The Sewol’s 15 surviving crew members, including the captain, are on trial on charges ranging from homicide to negligence. The disaster prompted an outpouring of grief and anger after some crew were caught on video abandoning ship while children, following instructions, stayed in their cabins.

Mr Yoo (73) who was also a photographer and co-founded a church, was accused of embezzlement, negligence and tax evasion. Authorities had offered a reward equivalent to nearly half a million dollars and had arrested several of Mr Yoo’s family members.

Woo Hyung-ho, police chief in Suncheon, told a televised news conference in the small southern city that a book written by Mr Yoo was found at the site, along with an empty bottle of a shark liver oil product made by a Mr Yoo family company.

He said that the police could have conducted forensic tests more quickly had they immediately identified the two items.

“We didn’t know at that time it was a book written by Yoo,” Mr Woo said. “We admit we were not perfect.”

Another police official said the announcement had been delayed as forensic investigation on DNA takes 40 days.

The time of death was unclear as the body had decayed by more than 80 percent. The body was transferred early today from Suncheon to the National Forensic Service in Seoul.

“I was roaming around the field and a person was dead ... but the body was decayed,” Park Yoon-seok, a resident who found the body, told cable news network YTN.

“He looked like a completely homeless person. He was lying straight with only the head turned around.”

Investigation Continues

The announcement was made less than 24 hours after prosecutors apologised for failing to capture Mr Yoo when they announced interim results of their investigation into the country’s worst maritime disaster in 20 years.

They made no mention yesterday that a body suspected of being Mr Yoo’s had been found. Also yesterday, a court issued a fresh arrest warrant for Mr Yoo, as an earlier warrant had been due to lapse.

Prosecutors in Incheon, west of Seoul, who are leading the investigation into the Yoo family, said their probe would continue. “Whether Yoo Byung-un is dead or not, we will proceed with the investigation,” they said in a statement.

Police said toxicology tests were underway and that the death did not appear to have been caused by foul play.

In their hunt for Mr Yoo, police had searched organic farms and retreats belonging to Mr Yoo and his Evangelical Baptist Church and arrested church members on suspicion of helping Mr Yoo escape. The church denied the allegations.

The book found near the body, titled ‘Greater Love has No One Than This’, was written in 1995 while Mr Yoo was serving four years in prison for fraud.

Reuters