The incredible South Korean hunt for the billionaire church leader who owned that ferry

Authorities raided a church on Wednesday in search of its co-founder, Yoo Byung-un, who is wanted on charges linked to April's ferry sinking that left more than 300 people dead or missing. (Reuters)

How many cops does it take to capture a billionaire? In South Korea, thousands. And even that may not be enough.

But of course, Yoo Byung-un is no ordinary billionaire. The head of a South Korean family that allegedly operated the ferry that sank in April and tragically took the lives of hundreds of children is a man of flamboyance and controversy. He was once jailed for fraud. A photographer, he once held an exhibition under a pseudonym at the Louvre. And not to be forgotten, he is the co-founder of a sprawling church that owns the Web site www.god.com.

As South Korea continues to throb with anger over the sunken ferry, officials are trying to convict anyone connected to its sinking. Fifteen members of the ferry’s crew are currently on trial for charges ranging from negligence to homicide. Now the cops have put a $500,000 bounty on the billionaire, charging him with embezzlement, negligence and tax evasion.

This week, the government dispatched 9,000 cops and a helicopter to his sprawling church estate near Seoul, which critics say houses a cult called the Evangelical Baptist Church. It’s an organization known for its organic ice cream and produce, and populated by female sect members called “mamas,” Reuters’ Ju-Min Park reports. The cops said they needed so much manpower because of the compound’s sheer size. It covers 30 football fields. It’s got a fish farm, a cow ranch, a 5,000-seat auditorium.

But one thing it apparently didn’t have: a 73-year-old billionaire named Yoo Byung-un. Prosecutors contend two middle-aged “mamas” helped him escape.

Police say they needed so many men, the Associated Press reported, because some church members allegedly refused to let police into the compound last month and threatened to die as martyrs. Earlier this week, the AP said, more than 200 members protested the police, chanting hymns and thrusting their fists in the air. Meanwhile, separate members dispensed organic ice cream to the cops while police dogs sniffed for Yoo’s scent.

On Friday, there was still no sign of the billionaire, but police nabbed his elder brother, Yoo Byung-il. The reason behind the brother’s arrest, which went down near the church compound, was not immediately clear. Prosecutors haven’t disclosed any charges against him, but reports say he was arrested on embezzlement charges.

As for Yoo’s whereabouts, his church members aren’t talking.

“I don’t know where he is, but he won’t turn up until everything is clear about why the ferry sank,” a 30-year church veteran told Reuters. “I respect him as a mentor. He is our fellow believer and we will protect him.”

This not the first time Yoo has been at the center of a melodrama. In 1987, 32 people committed suicide and were found dead, bound and gagged at a Seoul factory. Yoo, who was never charged, denied complicity. “I feel really insulted just to think that people link me to the accident,” Reuters reported him telling the magazine Chosun in 1999.

This time, however, there’s a manhunt that’s taken investigators to remote southwestern towns and left many exhausted. Investigators sprawled out inside Yoo’s gym this week and napped.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye couldn’t believe the investigators didn’t bring him back. Nine-thousand cops couldn’t apprehend one billionaire? “It made no sense,” she kvetched.

Others couldn’t figure out why the government is expending so many resources trying to capture a man only tangentially related to the ferry sinking. Yes, he may have owned it, but does that mean he contributed to the tragedy?

“This is basically a financial case,” Yu Chang-seon, an independent political commentator, told Reuters. “We should be holding him responsible to some degree, but the scale of the whole thing is unprecedented.”

Terrence McCoy covers poverty, inequality and social justice. He also writes about solutions to social problems.

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