Prosecution speeds up probe into Sewol ferry owner's relatives, aides

Prosecution speeds up probe into Sewol ferry owner's relatives, aides
South Korean riot police perform a raid at the Christian Evangelical Baptists of Korea premises in Anseong.

Investigators are pinning their hopes on their upcoming interrogation of a female confidante of Yoo Byung-eun, the owner of the ill-fated ferry Sewol, in terms of locating the fugitive's hideout if the court issues the arrest warrant requested by the prosecution to place her in custody.

The prosecution on Sunday asked the Incheon District Court to issue the warrant for Shin Myung-hee, 64, who gave herself up to the Suwon District Prosecutors' Office on Friday.

Shin's turning herself in, however, has stirred up suspicions over her intentions as she was reportedly a close aide of the fugitive Yoo and played a key leadership role among devotees of the Salvation Sect, which is allegedly led by the Sewol owner.

She has remained silent about Yoo's whereabouts since her voluntary appearance at the prosecutors' office, investigators noted.

This marked the first time that a follower of Yoo has surrendered to law enforcement agencies. It is speculated that Shin masterminded Yoo's flight from the police.

Some pundits highlight the timing. A lawyer said her or Yoo's followers' intentions may certainly be dubious, stressing that her action comes right after Yoo's older brother Byung-il, 75, was captured by police for colluding in business misconduct early Friday.

Investigators also have not ruled out the possibility that her action could be a behind-the-scenes tactic to spread false information on the whereabouts of Yoo and his eldest son Dae-gyun, both of whom are on the nationwide wanted list for engaging in business malpractices.

The prosecution also asked the court to issue a warrant for Yoo's brother, who was taken into custody early Sunday.

Shin, along with the female follower Kim Myung-sook, 59, are suspected of sheltering Yoo. They are called "mother Kim" and "mother Shin" by devotees of the sect.

After the business tycoon's male confidant Lee Jae-ok, a medical professor, was arrested by police on similar charges, the female followers reportedly organised systematic support from Geumsuwon for the fugitive.

The elder Yoo has been grilled by investigators over consulting fees he allegedly received, the owner family's suspected misappropriation of funds and the whereabouts of the fugitive ferry owner.

Meanwhile, the Incheon District Court on Monday will hold the first trial hearing on the case, for which the prosecution indicted eight heads of sister firms of Chonghaejin Marine Co., the operator of the sunken vessel, for allegedly supporting the runaway's illegal practices, including embezzlement.

About two weeks ago, investigators arrested the brother-in-law of Yoo for engaging in shady intra-group deals as the head of a unit of Chonghaejin Marine.

According to the Incheon District Prosecutors' Office, the suspect Kwon Oh-kyun allegedly pocketed company funds to illicitly transfer to the fugitive Yoo and his children.

Kwon is working for the irregularity-saddled Chonghaejin group as chief of Trigon Korea, a core affiliate of sister firm of Chonghaejin Marine. He is one of the key leaders of the Salvation Sect.

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