Ferry owner pocketed funds at Salvation Sect: Ex-devotee

Followers sit before police outside the compound of Yoo Byung-Eun, a leading member of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea, in Anseong, 80 km (50 miles) south of Seoul on June 11, 2014. Thousands of South Korean police forced their way into the compound of a splinter religious group in their search for a missing businessman wanted in connection with April's ferry disaster.

The fugitive Yoo Byung-eun, owner of the sunken ferry Sewol, reportedly instigated competition among devotees of the Salvation Sect to make them give as much as possible, a former follower said on a TV programme.

The individual, surnamed Lee, who identified himself as an ex-devotee of the sect, told a TV news outlet that Yoo's close aides pressured the devotees to offer more funds and made known how much they gave.

Raising the allegation that Yoo and his family could have pocketed most of the funds, he said a huge number of devotees may have been duped by the 73-year-old business tycoon.

"Most devotees ... believed Yoo's remarks that the funds were being used for the works of Christian evangelization," he said.

But contrary to Yoo's remarks before the devotees, the funds might have been exploited as a tool to accumulate private wealth and engage in embezzlement, he alleged.

Though Yoo's family, including his wife Kwon Yoon-ja, has already been suspected of pocketing followers' funds, this marked the first testimony, on a televised programme, by a former devotee.

Meanwhile, the prosecution on Friday asked the court to issue an arrest warrant for Yoo's close confidant, Lee Suk-hwan, who is a leader at Geumsuwon, a compound of the Salvation Sect that is located south of Seoul.

The 63-year-old aide is known to have masterminded illegal cross-funding among units of Chonghaejin Marine Co., the operator of the ill-fated Sewol.

One day after the April 16 ferry disaster, Yoo allegedly sent an emergency message on social networking services instructing some hundred devotees of the Salvation Sect to take countermeasures against the government's stern position against it, according to another news provider.

Yoo's SNS message to followers contradicted his claim that he would closely coordinate with prosecutors over their investigation into the ferry sinking.