SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean police said Tuesday that a badly decomposed body found surrounded by liquor bottles in a field last month was that of a fugitive billionaire businessman blamed for April’s ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people.
The body was found in a field of apricot trees in the southern city of Suncheon on June 12, local police station chief Wu Hyung-ho told a news conference. He said DNA and fingerprint samples taken from the body matched those of the wanted man, Yoo Byung-eun.
Wu said the body had decayed beyond recognition when it was found and a more thorough examination was needed to find how and when he died. An initial investigation showed there was no evidence that he was murdered, he said.
The dead man was wearing a pair of expensive shoes and a luxurious Italian brand Loro Piana winter parka. Also found near him were three empty Korean liquor bottles, a cloth bag and a magnifying glass, Wu said.
The state-run National Forensic Service took about 40 days to run the DNA tests. Suncheon police officers said the lab will conduct additional tests to find the cause and timing of Yoo’s death.
Police and prosecutors have been seeking Yoo since May and had offered a $500,000 reward for tips about him. They believe Yoo was the owner of the ferry and that his alleged corruption may have contributed to its sinking.
The sinking, one of South Korea’s deadliest disasters in decades, has caused an outpouring of national grief and renewed scrutiny about public safety. About 100 days after the disaster, 294 bodies have been retrieved but 10 people are still missing.
Prosecutors said Monday that 139 people had been arrested over the ferry sinking, including all 15 crew members tasked with navigating the ship, and employees at Chonghaejin, a company that operated the ferry, over suspicions of improper stowage and overloading of cargo. The crew members face charges of negligence and failing to perform their duties to rescue passengers, with four of them facing homicide charges.
Yoo faced allegations of tax evasion, embezzlement and professional negligence. Officials suspect the sinking may have happened because Chonghaejin illicitly funneled profits to his family and failed to spend enough money on safety and personnel.
Yoo, head of the now-defunct predecessor of Chonghaejin, allegedly still controlled the company through a complex web of holding companies in which his children and close associates are large shareholders. The government offered a $100,000 bounty for Yoo’s eldest son, and one of his daughters was arrested in France in May.
The predecessor company went bankrupt in the late 1990s but Yoo’s family continued to operate ferry businesses under the names of other companies, including one that eventually became Chonghaejin.
Yoo is also a member of a church that critics and defectors say is a cult. Yoo’s church made headlines in 1987 when 32 people, who critics suspect were church members, were found dead in the attic of a factory near Seoul in what authorities said was a collective murder-suicide pact. Church members have denied involvement.
Yoo was investigated over the deaths after 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 was convicted on a separate fraud charge.
Associated Press writer Jung-yoon Choi contributed to this report.