Shin Yong-geun / Yonhap / Reuters

Police raid South Korea church in futile search for ferry mogul

Despite efforts of thousands of police, billionaire businessman Yoo Byung-eun was nowhere to be found

Thousands of South Korean police officers stormed a sprawling church compound Wednesday in their hunt for a fugitive billionaire businessman over April's ferry sinking that left more than 300 people, mostly schoolchildren, dead or missing, officials said.

But the approximately 6,000 police officers who took part in the raid at the compound run by the Evangelical Baptist Church did not find Yoo Byung-eun, the 73-year-old patriarch of the family behind the Chonghaejin Marine Co. The shipping company owned and operated the Sewol passenger ferry, which sank on April 16.

About 200 church members rallied against the raid, singing hymns, pumping their fists into the air and chanting slogans. A large banner hanging near them said, "We'll protect Yoo Byung-eun even if 100,000 church members are all arrested." There were no reports of violence.

Helicopters flew overhead as officers moved from building to building at the site, believed to be the size of about 30 soccer fields.

Yoo, a co-founder of the church, located two hours south of Seoul, was once jailed for fraud and is now South Korea's most wanted man.

It was not clear whether he was at the compound, which is considered the church's headquarters, at the time of the raid. Thousands of church members gather there for services on weekends. Four members were detained Wednesday for allegedly providing shelter to Yoo or helping him flee, police said. Another member was detained for allegedly trying to obstruct the raid.

Yoo is wanted on charges of embezzlement, negligence and tax evasion stemming from a web of business holdings centered on I-One-I, an investment vehicle owned by his sons that ran Chonghaejin Marine.

While Yoo has no direct stake in Chonghaejin, he allegedly still controls the company through a complex web of holding companies in which his children and close associates are large shareholders.

Prosecutors have offered a reward of close to 500 million won ($490,000) for information leading to the capture of Yoo and 100 million won ($98,000) for that of his eldest son, Yoo Dae-kyun. Police had also raided the church complex three weeks ago but came away empty-handed

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. The church has denied involvement.

Yoo was investigated over the deaths after a probe into the financial transactions of those who were found dead 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.

Of the 476 passengers and crew on board the Sewol, 339 were children and teachers from the same school. Only 172 people were rescued, and the remainder are presumed to have drowned. 

Wednesday's raid came a day after 15 Sewol crew members went on trial in a court packed with angry parents of the children who died. Four crew members face homicide charges after they were seen escaping the listing vessel as the children followed instructions to stay in their cabins.

It also came a day after President Park Geun-hye, whose government was criticized over its handling of the disaster, said "it made no sense" that such an extensive search operation had failed to catch Yoo.

Wire services

Related News

South Korea

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


South Korea

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter