Some 70 officials from the Incheon District Prosecutors' Office raided a compound south of Seoul on Wednesday to arrest the de facto owner of ferry operator Chonghaejin Marine. But neither Yoo Byung-eon nor his eldest son Dae-gyun could be found and their whereabouts remain a mystery.
Earlier in the day, tensions mounted amid fears of a clash between followers of a cult led by the elder Yoo, who had converged at the compound to form a human barricade, and police. Riot police surrounded the compound at around 6 a.m., and suddenly the number of cult members swelled from 200-300 to around 1,000.
But they allowed prosecutors and investigators to enter the compound around noon after seeking assurances that there was no link with a mass suicide in 1987 involving members of the same sect.
Authorities believe the cult members let them in because Yoo and his son had fled, and their concerns about the 27-year-old incident, in which Yoo was implicated but cleared, were a front.
Officials spent about eight hours searching the compound while cult members barred journalists from entering. Around 500 riot police surrounded the compound to deal with potential clashes and another 1,000 were stationed nearby until the search ended.
A prosecution official said, "We suspected that Yoo Buyung-eon had already left the compound, but we had to verify that, and there was a chance that Dae-gyun was still hiding there."
Prosecutors left around 8 p.m.
Investigators are now surveilling the homes of cult members suspected of helping the two evade police.
A prosecution spokesman said anyone caught helping Yoo and his son escape will face criminal charges of aiding and abetting a felon.