SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s biggest and most bizarre manhunt, linked to a ferry disaster in which hundreds drowned, has come full circle at the compound of a sect known for its organic ice cream as police on Thursday used earth movers to search for tunnels.
Police have raided the grounds of the Evangelical Baptist Church in Anseong, a two-hour drive south of Seoul, twice as they try to flush out church co-founder Yoo Byung-un, 73, South Korea’s most wanted man since the Sewol ferry sank in April killing more than 300 people, mostly children from the same school.
But, so far, Yoo, a businessman and photographer who was once jailed for fraud, has eluded capture in a case which has become an embarrassment for authorities already under pressure for their handling of the disaster.
Yoo is wanted on charges of embezzlement, negligence and tax evasion stemming from a web of business holdings centered on I-One-I, an investment vehicle owned by his sons that ran the shipping company, Chonghaejin Marine.
Chonghaejin owned the Sewol which sank off the southwest coast on April 16 on a routine journey from Incheon on the mainland to the southern holiday island of Jeju.
Of the 476 passengers and crew on board, 339 were children and teachers from the same school. Only 172 people were rescued and the remainder are all presumed to have drowned.
The hunt for Yoo, who once held a photographic exhibition at the Louvre in Paris, has sent authorities chasing leads from the sect compound to remote towns in southwestern Jeolla province - and back again to the compound.
The latest raid began on Wednesday and involved 6,000 police and investigators. Besides Yoo and one son, prosecutors said they were looking for two middle-aged female sect members known as “mamas” accused of helping him escape. Dogs roamed the compound sniffing for scent from Yoo’s belongings.
Last month, police arrested a man on suspicion that he delivered organic food grown and marketed by the church to Yoo, as well as one of his drivers. Some church members handed out ice cream to police and journalists on Wednesday. Others threatened to fight police.
One said church members would protect Yoo.
“I don’t know where he is, but he won’t turn up until everything is clear about why the ferry sank,” a man who said he had been a sect member for 30 years, told Reuters outside the compound.
“I respect him as a mentor. He is our fellow believer and we will protect him.”
Authorities have offered a half-million-dollar reward for Yoo, the maximum allowed for an individual in a criminal case, and quietly enlisted the military, a sensitive subject in a country where memories remain vivid of troops mobilized to suppress democracy movements from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Police said they believe Yoo and one son are still in the country. Another son is based in the United States and his whereabouts could not be established By Reuters.
“We haven’t received information that they have stowed away or left for somewhere. We believe we can capture Yoo and his son,” Lee Sang-won, commissioner of the Incheon Metropolitan Police Agency, said.
Yoo’s daughter, Yoo Som-Na, has been held in France since May 28 after Interpol called for her arrest “for fraud and embezzlement”. She was denied bail on Wednesday.
There have been no charges against Yoo directly related to the ferry disaster, although prosecutors are trying to establish a link between the financial charges and the sinking.
Fifteen members of the ferry’s crew are on trial on charges ranging from homicide to negligence after they were caught on video abandoning ship as the children stayed put in their cabins.
Enlisting the military’s help in the hunt shows just how desperate the government is to catch Yoo and satisfy an outraged public’s demand for accountability.
“Basically in the south and west, the units based there have been looking out for people illegally entering, especially at night,” Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told a news briefing. “Related to that, there’s a chance Yoo Byung-un may try to secretly flee, so guard duties are focused a little more on people being smuggled out.”
Fatigue has become a factor as the manhunt drags on, with about a dozen investigators photographed sprawled out napping in a gym inside the Anseong compound during Wednesday’s raid.
President Park Geun-hye this week said “it made no sense” that such a massive search operation had come up empty, and some sect members suggested the raid was staged to placate a bloodthirsty public.
Yu Chang-seon, an independent political commentator, said the search was excessive, expressing a minority view in a country still in mourning.
“Considering the charges against Yoo, this is basically a financial case,” he said. “We should be holding him responsible to some degree, but the scale of the whole thing is unprecedented.”
Editing by Tony Munroe and Nick Macfie