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Body of fugitive billionaire in Sewol ferry case found

By Jung-eun Kim, Judy Kwon and Madison Park, CNN
updated 7:08 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Yoo Byung-eun has been missing for months
  • A body found June 12 was tested and the DNA is a match, police say
  • Defenders said Yoo has been made a scapegoat for Sewol disaster

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- The Sewol ferry disaster appears to have taken another life -- this time of the man whom some blamed for the sinking.

Yoo Byung Eun, the subject of an intense, nationwide manhunt who went missing after the South Korean ferry sank in April, was declared dead, police said Tuesday.

Yoo's body was found decomposing in a plum field by a farmer on June 12.

Police used DNA and fingerprints to positively identify him.

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Prosecutors believe Yoo, 73, and his sons controlled the shipping company that operated the deadly ferry.

The ferry that capsized, killed 294 people aboard, including hundreds of high school students who were on a field trip. More than three months after the incident, divers are still searching for bodies, with 10 people missing.

Yoo, through his representatives, vehemently denied any connection to the Chonghaejin Marine Company in late April. His defenders, including members of his religious group, maintained that Yoo, a businessman and religious figure, was made into a scapegoat for the tragedy.

Much of the blame has fallen on Sewol's operators who were accused of prioritizing profits over safety in an investigator's interim report this month. The report found that Sewol had carried double the amount of cargo allowed and that the heavy load had not been properly secured. They also found that the vessel had been licensed on falsified documents.

Manhunt

For months following the sinking, Yoo defied summons to report to the prosecutor's office for questioning. Yoo was wanted for questioning with an investigation into alleged funds embezzlement, tax evasion and other irregularities that prosecutors say could have contributed to the sinking.

Wanted posters including possible disguises for Yoo popped up. Even South Korea's president, Park Geun-hye weighed in, accusing Yoo's family of "mocking the law and causing public rage."

South Korea's most wanted man

With nearly 8,000 police officers dispatched on the case, the inability to find the septuagenarian became another source of controversy. But the search ended Tuesday when police announced Yoo's death.

His body, they said, was next to an empty bottle of squalene (a type of fish oil), three empty bottles of alcohol, reading glasses, and a handwritten book titled "Dreamy Love." The man appeared to be wearing a jacket and his shoes were set next to him.

The cause of death is still under investigation, said Woo Hyung-Ho, the police chief of Suncheon, the city where Yoo's body had been found. Police could not determine when he had died. The body was decomposed.

The location of the body was near his summer home in the southern end of Korea.

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Yoo's history

Little was known about Yoo, who was called the "millionaire without a face" because of his reluctance to appear in public.

Yoo was a religious figure of Gu Won Pa (which translates to "salvation group"), also known as the Evangelical Baptist Church, which had been founded by his father-in-law. The church had decried the investigation into Yoo and the group as religious persecution. Its spokesman could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Yoo also branched into an artistic career, known by an alter ego called, Ahae, a photographer who won international acclaim. The firm representing Ahae Press also did not have any comment Tuesday.

Yoo had four sons and daughters; the whereabouts of three of the four are unknown. Yoo's wife, Kwon Yun-Ja is under arrest in South Korea, according to Yonhap.

READ: Sewol ferry search helicopter crash kills 5 in South Korea

READ: Report: S. Korean ferry operators prioritized profits over safety

READ: Principal fired over Sewol ferry disaster

Jung-eun Kim reported from Seoul, South Korea. Judy Kwon and Madison Park reported from Hong Kong. CNN's Steve Almasy contributed from Atlanta.

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