Thousands of South Korean police officers stormed a sprawling church compound yesterday in their hunt for a fugitive billionaire over April’s ferry sinking that left more than 300 people dead or missing, officials said.
Authorities say they believe businessman Yoo Byung-eun owns the ferry and that his allegedly corrupt practices may have contributed to its sinking.
Police and prosecutors have been after Yoo for weeks and are offering a US$500,000 reward for information on his whereabouts.
Yoo, 73, is a member of a group called the Evangelical Baptist Church, which critics say is a cult.
About 5,000 police officers, some wearing helmets and carrying plastic shields, raided the group’s compound in Anseong, south of Seoul, officers said.
Four church members were detained for allegedly providing shelter to Yoo or helping him flee, police said, while another was detained for allegedly trying to obstruct the raid.
It was not clear whether Yoo was at the compound during the raid. Police said they were still trying to find and detain more church members for allegedly aiding Yoo.
The compound, which is the size of about 30 soccer fields, is considered the church’s headquarters where thousands of members gather for services on weekends.
The area contains ranches, fields, a fish farm and an auditorium that can house up to 5,000 people, media reports say.
About 200 church members rallied against the raid, singing hymns, pumping their fists into the air and chanting slogans. A large banner hanging near them said: “We’ll protect Yoo Byung-eun even if 100,000 church members are all arrested.”
Yoo, head of the now-defunct predecessor of the ferry’s current operator, Chonghaejin, allegedly still controls the company through a complex web of holding companies in which his children and close associates are major shareholders.
Seoul has offered a US$100,000 bounty for Yoo’s eldest son, while one of his daughters was arrested in France last month.
Chonghaejin’s predecessor went bankrupt in the late 1990s, but Yoo’s family continued to operate ferry businesses under the names of other firms, including one that eventually became Chonghaejin.
Yoo’s church made headlines in 1987, when 32 people, who critics suspect were church members, were found dead in a factory near Seoul in what authorities said was a collective murder-suicide pact.
Yoo was investigated over the deaths after a probe into the deceased’s financial transactions showed some of their money was funneled to him. He was cleared over lack of evidence, but convicted on a separate fraud charge.