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Police confirm Sewol owner’s death

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Published : 2014-07-22 21:40
Updated : 2014-07-23 14:49

The police confirmed Tuesday that a dead body, found by a farmer in South Jeolla Province on June 12, is that of Yoo Byung-eun, owner of the capsized ferry Sewol.

Investigators identified the body through fingerprint comparison and DNA samples, Suncheon Police Station chief Woo Hyung-ho said at a news briefing.

Woo said the fingerprints match those of the 73-year-old fugitive and DNA samples approximately match those of his older brother, Byung-il. The older Yoo had been taken into custody for allegedly pocketing funds from affiliates of Chonghaejin Marine Co., the operator of the ill-fated ferry.

Woo admitted that the police had been somewhat negligent in investigating the body when the plum field owner notified the investigative agency about the body in early June.
Investigators move the body confirmed by police to be that of the ill-fated Sewol operator Yoo Byung-eun into an ambulance at a hospital in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province, Tuesday. The body was handed over to the Seoul unit of the National Forensic Service. (Yonhap)

Though the corpse was delivered to a hospital in Suncheon right after the farmer reported it, a lock of hair and some bone fragments from the remains were found to have been left in the field for more than a month, during which time police allegedly failed to identify the body due to the advanced state of decay.

Police and the prosecution said they were waiting for the final results from the National Forensic Service, which is conducting a DNA test on the body.

Reportedly, investigators at that time ― or several days or weeks after the farmer’s notification ― sent DNA samples from the body, but not the whole corpse, to a regional forensic agency in a standard manner to identify the corpse.

Insiders raised the possibility that investigators may have regarded the body as that of an elderly resident from the provincial district.

Investigators had reportedly told the plum farm owner that the body “seemed to be an ordinary homeless person.”

But law enforcement agencies ― reportedly unexpectedly ― were informed by the National Forensic Service late Monday, (about 40 days after the farmer’s report,) that the body could be that of Yoo.

The dubious situation is widening the speculation that investigators sent the DNA sample of the body to the forensic agency “not immediately after the June 12 report but recently.”

Early Tuesday, the hospital handed the corpse over to the Seoul unit of the National Forensic Service, based in Wonju, Gangwon Province.

“Should the forensic agency further reiterate its research position that the body is that of Yoo, the prosecution is expected to halt its full-fledged effort to indict him,” an investigator said.

The forensic agency, which secured the body on Tuesday, said it had found “no trace of murder.” But it had yet to clarify its final stance as of 7 p.m.

Some netizens are denouncing the prosecution for not securing the body immediately after it was found by the farm owner in early June. The prosecution, which saw the initial warrant for Yoo expire, again asked the Incheon District Court to issue a second arrest warrant on Monday, vowing to capture him in the coming months.

Some Internet users have cast a series of doubts, saying that they do not trust the authorities or their remarks. They cited suspicious investigative results and a lack of evidence. “How could policemen at that time fail to recognize the nation’s most wanted (criminal), Yoo Byung-eun? It is unreasonable for a body to decompose to an unrecognizable level in only three weeks.”

But renowned criminal profiler Pyo Chang-won echoed the view of police, citing factors for severe decay such as high temperature, humidity and rapidly multiplying bacteria. The former professor of the Korean National Police University alleged that some of Yoo’s aides, who were accompanying him during his flight, might have eventually deserted him.

On an aired program, Pyo and lawyer Yang Ji-yeol dismissed the possibility that the runaway committed suicide. The two criminal affair pundits highlighted a memo written by Yoo, and recently obtained by the prosecution, in which he sneered at law enforcement authorities.

Both of them raised the scenario that Yoo died a natural death from hypothermia.

A Seoul-based lawyer said he had not ruled out the possibility that Yoo’s aides offered him poisoned water or other drinks.

A spokesman for the Salvation Sect, which was led by the ferry owner, downplayed the announcement that the body is really that of Yoo. He was quoted by a news provider as saying that the corpse appears not to be Yoo “in consideration of a variety of circumstances (involving the estimated time of death of the unidentified figure).”

While police said that some liquor bottles were also discovered near the dead body, the religious sect’s spokesman stressed that he is a teetotaler.

Meanwhile, there are speculations that the nationwide manhunt for their religious leader and the variety of misconduct committed by the Yoo family, revealed over the past few months, could have weakened many devotees’ faith in Yoo and the sect.

Later in the day, the National Police Agency discharged Suncheon Police Station chief Woo from his post and hinted that more senior officers would also be held accountable for lax probes.

Yoo has been suspected of overlooking the risks of overloading the Sewol vessel with freight early this year, even though the ferry had a weakened ability to recover left-and-right balance when turning, due to a renovation that added more cabins to the vessel.

The irregularity-saddled business tycoon escaped after the April 16 sinking disaster, which had a death toll of 294 as of July 22.

By Kim Yon-se (kys@heraldcorp.com)

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