How Did Ferry Owner Die?

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.

The body of ferry owner Yoo Byung-eon lies in an ambulance moving it to the National Forensic Service in Seoul from a funeral service in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province on Tuesday. /News1 The body of ferry owner Yoo Byung-eon lies in an ambulance moving it to the National Forensic Service in Seoul from a funeral service in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province on Tuesday. /News1

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.

◆ Suicide

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.

englishnews@chosun.com / Jul. 23, 2014 10:05 KST