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Reward offered for missing S. Korea ferry owner

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - South Korea is offering a $50,000 reward for information about a mysterious missing billionaire who authorities say owns a ferry that sank last month, leaving more than 300 people dead or missing.

The disappearance of Yoo Byung-eun and his son has caused a media frenzy in South Korea. Yoo is a member of a church that critics call a cult and have linked to a 1987 mass suicide; church members deny involvement.

Yoo, 73, was thought to be holed up in a sprawling church compound near Seoul, and there was a tense, dayslong standoff between police and hundreds of church followers, some of whom reportedly threatened to die as martyrs.

But Yoo wasn't there when church members on Wednesday finally opened the compound to authorities, and some speculated that he may have fled to the home of a church follower. Prosecutors and police then announced a 50 million won ($50,000) reward for information about Yoo's location, and 30 million won ($30,000) for details about his eldest son.

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 large shareholders. Senior prosecutor Kim Hoe-jong said authorities believe Yoo is the chairman of Chonghaejin.

Yoo faces allegations of tax evasion, embezzlement and professional negligence. Prosecutors have said they suspect that the April 16 ferry sinking may have happened because Chonghaejin illicitly funneled profits to Yoo's family, and so failed to spend enough money on safety and personnel. His son, Yoo Dae-gyun, faces embezzlement allegations.

Chonghaejin's official leader, CEO Kim Han-sik, and four other employees have already been arrested. Officials suspect improper stowage and overloading of cargo may have contributed to the disaster.

Officers at the National Police Agency said Thursday that they have begun a massive manhunt to capture Yoo.

A special team of about 150 veteran detectives and police officers has been established. Tens of thousands of posters with photos of Yoo and his son and information about the rewards have been plastered on bus terminals, train stations and other public places, agency officials said. Officers who capture Yoo or his son will be promoted by one rank.

Yoo is said to be the leader of the Evangelical Baptist Church, sometimes known as the Salvation Sect, and critics allege that church members call him "Moses." Church members deny that and say Yoo is just an ordinary member, although they acknowledge he has some influence because of his long affiliation with the church, which was founded by his father-in-law.

The church was in the news in 1987 when 32 people, then reportedly affiliated with a splinter group of the Salvation Sect, were found dead in the attic of a factory near Seoul in what authorities said was a collective murder-suicide pact. The deaths occurred as police investigated whether the splinter group's leader swindled money from more than 200 people.

Yoo later faced an investigation over the deaths. A probe into the dead people's financial transactions showed some of their money was funneled to him. He was cleared of suspicions that he was behind the suicides because of a lack of evidence, but he was convicted on a separate fraud charge that he collected donations from church members and invested them in his businesses.

Yoo founded Chonghaejin's predecessor, Semo Corp., in 1979. The conglomerate, which found success with businesses running cruises on Seoul's Han River, had firms involved in cosmetics, real estate, other domestic ferry businesses and shipbuilding. It once had nearly 3,000 employees. Semo went bankrupt amid the Asian foreign exchange crisis in the late 1990s.

Even after Semo's bankruptcy, Yoo's family continued to operate ferry businesses under the names of other companies, including one that eventually became Chonghaejin. The ferry businesses owned by Yoo's family suffered a slew of maritime accidents. In 1991, 14 Semo workers were killed when their cruise ship on the Han River was hit by another ship.

In recent years, Yoo has worked as a photographer under the name of "Ahae," and his works have been shown at the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles. Companies affiliated with Chonghaejin reportedly have spent tens of millions of dollars to buy his photographs.


Associated Press writers Youkyung Lee and Jung-yoon Choi contributed to this report.

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boogiewiz May 23 2014 at 11:23 AM

Can't they freeze all his assets.. any business or bank holding with his name attached to it... Bet someone will give him up to make sure their money is safe..This man is a coward and needs to face his fate

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1 reply
John boogiewiz May 23 2014 at 11:53 PM

Rich people rarely pay for their crimes when regular people die.

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fennris May 23 2014 at 9:24 AM

It's hard to feel sorry for this particular guy but it looks a lot like a witch hunt.

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2 replies
rwitchwoman63 fennris May 23 2014 at 2:15 PM

Really did any of your kids die?....A$$hole!!!!!

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1 reply
Shirley rwitchwoman63 May 23 2014 at 6:46 PM

No they did not, not there, But I did loose my daughter, long before that. That last remark you are. And everyone has one, thank God.

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John fennris May 23 2014 at 11:50 PM

He's wealthy. They will never find him. He's probably drinking wine in Paris and laughing his head off at the attempts to find him.
Rich people rarely pay for their crimes regardless of how many regular people die.

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aclimateco May 23 2014 at 9:35 AM

There probably on an exclusive golf course in the United States slowing down everyone’s round and leaving a mess in the bunkers and marks on the greens!

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1 reply
John aclimateco May 23 2014 at 11:52 PM

I really think that Paris, France is a more likely site for him to hide.

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juancarlos6928 May 23 2014 at 10:10 AM

We have a lot of Yoo Byung in Washington.

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liquidwallpaper May 23 2014 at 9:13 AM

This man sounds like scum. If he is in fact guilty of all the charges then he should be put away for a long time.

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2 replies
karen and pitts liquidwallpaper May 23 2014 at 10:08 AM

he hired a licensed captain to run the ferry. he was not on board at the time of the sinking. WHAT pray tell is he guilty of? being a dirt bag is not a crime. even in china!

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1 reply
sachfoxo karen and pitts May 23 2014 at 2:56 PM

1. He had a training captain who was on one of his first voyages no experience.
2. The Ship was 3 times over weight and the captain and son knew it , Have you been keeping up ??????
3. he was on board and the Ship and was one of first Coward to Jump ship.( The 74 year old Captain )
4. This was the south Korean Ferry with all the kids from that school taking a trip, Principal killed himself !
5. Karen you are the pitts

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d1anaw liquidwallpaper May 23 2014 at 10:27 AM

So he failed to maintain the vessel. Permitted it to be overloaded. Committed a number of crimes, including embezzlement, etc and he's done nothing wrong? And then he cowardly runs and hides rather than hiring a myriad of attorneys to defend him? If this were a US company, the same people defending him would be howling from the rooftops even if he weren't guilty. Merely the fact that he was one of those "wealthy 1%" would be enough to convict him. How hypocritical.

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2 replies
karen and pitts d1anaw May 23 2014 at 12:13 PM

they don't stand a prayer of convicting him of anything.he's not an actor or a celebrity so he can't get a free pass. but your point is well taken. he should lawyer up and fight this in court.

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sachfoxo d1anaw May 23 2014 at 3:10 PM

Karen you have changed your mind you are Rambling Listen to d1anaw He is going to get it and now he is on his Own with his son as protection. LOL I hope the people who lost Family members get their 199 seconds to get even with this Sc*m*ag !

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sgentilejr May 23 2014 at 9:33 AM

It is easy to condemn the people involved, ___ yet in reality without those people who owner and ran that service there is NO longer any ferry service available. No new company is going to come forward now and move passengers between those ports. THINK about it __ would you want to go into the ferry business when if anything goes wrong the Government and the Public are going to try to lynch you before they even raised the ship and carefully examined the ship to determine why it really sank????

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4 replies
totalstudentsvcs May 23 2014 at 3:44 PM

The owner is most likely in FLUSHING or Fort Lee driving around in a Rolls Royce like some of the fake ministers in those areas. Fake and Take religious leaders that the Koreans support with tons of money. They are the Asian versions of the Bakers.

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ltjaysantos May 23 2014 at 10:24 AM

No different than in the US, this guy is extremely wealthy, will shake off the charges, and the subordinates will pay the price. Money smoothes over a rich man's problems.

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1 reply
John ltjaysantos May 23 2014 at 11:56 PM

Particularly if ordinary people die. Rich people never get convicted of anything when innocent people die.

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totalstudentsvcs May 23 2014 at 3:20 PM

He is either in FLUSHING or FORT LEE driving around in a ROLLS ROYCE like a few other Korean ministers in the area. Fake and Take religion.Its amazing how much money the Korean people give to churches with phony azz ministers.

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gerr May 23 2014 at 12:11 PM

sgent...If I was experienced (and wealthy enough) to provide a service that was profitable to ferry people in that particular area, then yes I would. Unfortunately in this case (allegedly now), the company was mis-managed by an induvidual who cut corners (safety being the most important). These facts are surfacing now. And Yoo and his son have skipped out which points out even more, what hideous and obscene mis-management can ultimately result to. There are hundreds of ferry companies around the world that are operating according to government regulations. And "accidents" do happen. But this sad, heartbreaking event, in my opinion, was a result of poor decision making, ignorance, and greed.

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1 reply
d1anaw gerr May 23 2014 at 1:00 PM

When you ignore weight restrictions, cargo restrictions, the rules of the water, it's no longer an "accident". It's a choice.

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