Investigators are still struggling to identify the cause of the death of ferry owner Yoo Byung-eon, whose body was found on June 12 in a state of advanced decomposition. Yoo appears to have died where he was found, sitting on a fertilizer bag in a field and eating dried beef from a bag.
Police and forensic experts are looking at a number of theories, from murder to exhaustion.
◆ Murdered by Bounty Hunters?
Yoo had planned to escape as soon as prosecutors began looking for him shortly after the April 16 ferry disaster, which has been largely blamed on mismanagement at ferry operator Chongjaehin Marine, which he owned.
He first holed up at a sprawling compound south of Seoul owned by the crackpot cult he led, but on April 23 he sneaked out and stayed in the home of a cult member in Gyeonggi Province.
He moved on to a cottage in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province in early May.
At the time, Yoo is said to have been carrying around vast amounts of cash, enough to buy a nearby summer home for W250 million (US$1=W1,025) while on the run. The man who sold the property to Yoo told prosecutors that he took the money out of a bag that appeared large enough to contain W2 billion in W50,000 bills.
This has led to speculation that Yoo was murdered by helpers who wanted his money. Supporting this view is the fact that Yang Hoi-jung, the cult follower who drove Yoo to Suncheon, evaded capture when police raided the summer home and still remains at large.
But police said they have found no signs of foul play. There were no signs of strangulation found on the body, but it was badly decomposed and it will take further analysis to determine the exact cause of death.
Yoo, who was in his 70s, probably knew that he would spend the rest of his life in prison. He may have succeeded in leaving the cult compound without getting caught but then chosen to kill himself as the dragnet seemed to close in.
There is speculation that he took poison, since bottles of rice wine and soju were found in a bag next to his body. Cult members said Yoo did not drink alcohol.
But a primary autopsy showed no traces of toxic chemicals, according to Lee Young-jik, the physician who examined the corpse. Cult members say Yoo would not have killed himself given his religious beliefs, though how persuaded he himself was of the millennial message he preached to followers is a matter for debate.
◆ Natural Causes
The most probable cause of death is natural factors. Yoo apparently fled on his own when police raided the cottage in Suncheon. He did not know how to drive and probably ran away on foot and headed toward the mountains. In his haste he did not take much with him.
Most cult members suspected of assisting Yoo's escape were soon arrested, so Yoo probably lost contact with his supporters and died while wandering through the woods on his own. He was suffering from high blood pressure and diabetes, which makes it more likely that he died of natural causes.
It is possible that he died from hypothermia. Suncheon saw frequent rains during the time when Yoo was on the run, while the discovery of the liquor bottles suggests that he drank and fell asleep, causing his body temperature to plummet.
* Pursuant to an order by the Press Arbitration Commission, we have been asked to publish the following statement from the Evangelical Baptist Church (EBC).
After the April 16, 2014 Sewol ferry tragedy, the media published a flood of indiscriminate articles regarding the EBC (also known as "Guwonpa" in Korean) and Mr. Yoo Byung-eun. Due to the immense volume of articles, it is impossible to correct and counter every single one. Therefore, in agreement with the EBC and the surviving family of Mr. Yoo Byung-eun, we are publishing the following combined corrections and Official Statement.
1. In regards to the claims that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun was the owner of the Sewol ferry vessel and the owner and Chief Executive Officer of Chonghaejin Marine Ltd ("Chonghaejin") and its affiliated companies
The majority of the media reported that, as the owner of the Sewol ferry, Mr. Yoo Byung-eun directly managed Chonghaejin and its affiliated companies and that he used operating funds for personal purposes. However, Mr. Yoo retired from the executive board in 1997. Additionally, he did not own any shares in the noted companies, nor had he managed operations, nor used the operating funds for personal reasons. He was not the ship owner of Sewol ferry, nor the Chief Executive Officer of Chonghaejin. As such, he had not provided any directives in regards to the overloading of Sewol ferry or renovation of the ferry (e.g. expansion of the cabins and cargo area).
2. In regards to the allegations of Mr. Yoo Byung-eun's acquisition of assets in other people's names and misappropriation of offerings made to the EBC
The majority of the media reported that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun was a wealthy billionaire who owned real estate properties, including Geumsuwon, both in Korea and abroad under other people's names and that he diverted the tithes and offerings made to the EBC to an illicit fund and expanded his businesses. The EBC has confirmed that reports of his wealth incorrectly included real estate properties owned by farming associations, which had been established by church members. Thus, these reported properties were not held by Mr. Yoo Byung-eun in another person's name, but are owned by the noted farming associations. Additionally, Mr. Yoo did not embezzle from the EBC nor did he expand his businesses by diverting tithes or offerings of the pertaining church and its members into an illicit fund.
3. In regards to the reports related to Mr. Yoo Byung-eun's position within the EBC
The EBC has stated that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun was not a religious sect leader. Although he was ordained as a pastor in the 1970s by missionaries at the Far East Broadcasting Company, he did not act as a pastor. There is no pastor in the EBC, since it is a congregation of laymen. It was also verified that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun did not participate in the process when the EBC was established in 1981, nor had he been revered as a religious sect leader or been made into a God-like figure by the pertaining church or its members.
4. In regards to reports that the EBC is a cult and that it has false doctrines
The majority of the media reported that the EBC is a religious cult and that it preaches doctrines that are not consistent with Christianity. There are certain churches in Korea that call the EBC a cult, solely based on differences between their and the EBC's doctrines. However, the EBC has affirmed its belief in the Bible, the Trinity, and in Jesus' conception by the Holy Spirit, His birth, death, and resurrection. The EBC does not worship a particular individual as a religious sect leader or preach any doctrine that contradicts the Bible.
5. In regards to reports of Mr. Yoo Byung-eun's attempt to flee the country by ship, reports of his seeking asylum and reports of his possession of firearms
The majority of the media reported that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun attempted to flee the country by ship, that he requested asylum in several countries but was rejected, and that he possessed firearms to protect himself. The prosecutors hastily announced without confirming the facts that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun attempted to seek asylum. However, two months later on August 18, the prosecutors revised their statement noting that "upon investigation into the identity of the caller, a person with no relation to the Salvation Group had placed a prank call." In addition, there was no evidence of any attempt by Mr. Yoo to flee the country. It has also been confirmed that the firearms alleged to be in his possession were collectibles. Furthermore, not only were they collectibles that could not actually be used, they were also not in Mr. Yoo’s possession while he was fleeing.
6. In regards to reports alleging that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun held photography exhibitions at the world's top museums by donating funds and that he forced sales of his artworks
The artwork of Ahae (Mr. Yoo Byung-eun) were examined and authorized for exhibitions at renowned museums and exhibition sites in the United States and Europe by their screening committees. The exhibitions were unrelated to donations, and it was confirmed that there was no causal relationship between Ahae's donation history and the exhibitions. Moreover, Mr. Yoo's photography exhibitions were authorized by the committees after the directors of the respective museums had acknowledged the artistic value of Ahae's works and subsequently proposed hosting the exhibitions. It has been confirmed that the exhibitions were not a result of Mr. Yoo's patronage or donation. Additionally, the above museums have verified that an exhibition can never be authorized unless the artistic value of an artist's works is recognized by the screening committee, irrespective of the amount of money an artist donates. Additionally, it has been confirmed that Mr. Yoo did not force sales of his artworks.
7. In regards to reports on allegations about the EBC’s and Mr. Yoo Byung-eun's links to the Odaeyang incident and their relationship with the Fifth Republic of Korea
Some news articles delivered the impression that the EBC and Mr. Yoo Byung-eun were behind the Odaeyang mass suicide incident. Some also reported that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun had been able to rapidly grow the Semo Group in the 1980s (e.g. securing the business rights to operate the Han River Ferry Cruise) by using a connection with Mr. Chun Kyung-hwan and a close relationship with the former President Chun Doo-hwan's Fifth Republic of Korea. However, the Odaeyang mass suicide incident was thoroughly investigated by the prosecution and the police three times -- in 1987, 1989, and 1991. All three investigations concluded that the EBC and Mr. Yoo Byung-eun had no connection to the incident. Also, neither Mr. Yoo Byung-eun nor the EBC had any collusive ties with the Fifth Republic of Korea. This was all verified in the official document of the Incheon District Prosecutors' Office, issued on May 21, 2014.
Lastly, the Evangelical Baptist Church has released the following statement to the media:
We sincerely request of the press to serve the public's right to know with objective and balanced reports, guarding against biased arguments from its interviewees, all while ensuring to fulfill its duty and responsibility to create no victim from such reporting. We ask the press to reflect upon its manner of reporting on the Sewol ferry accident. Without waiting for the truth to be revealed through the completion of the investigative and judicial process, the reporting largely focused on releasing exclusive and sensational news reports, which led to misleading the public and essentially a trial in the court of public opinion. We also ask the press to avoid causing any compromise to the democratic principles of a constitutional state and to prudently take strict precautions against those forces that aim to take advantage of this period of heartbreak for this nation in order to advance their own position and authority.