Intelligence officer was under investigation for allegedly ordering deletion of warnings about Halloween night crowds.
The 55-year-old official, identified only by his surname Jeong, was in charge of intelligence affairs at the Yongsan Police Station covering the city’s Itaewon entertainment district where the tragedy unfolded on October 29.
He was found dead at his Seoul home by a family member on Friday at about 12:45pm (03:45 GMT) local time, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported, citing unnamed police officials.
Yongsan Police Station, a fire station, and local authority offices have been raided by investigators as part of a probe into failures by officials in the Itaewon area to respond effectively to reports of overcrowding on the night of the tragedy, which also left about 200 people injured.
At least 100,000 people had flocked to the Itaewon area to celebrate the first post-pandemic Halloween parties, and neither local authorities nor police had planned measures for a crowd that large.
“Jeong has been facing suspicions that after the tragedy, he ordered the deletion of an internal intelligence report giving prior warnings of a possible safety accident during the Halloween period in a suspected attempt to cover up inaction,” Yonhap reported.
“Charges raised against him included abuse of authority, destruction of evidence and professional negligence resulting in death,” the news agency reported, adding that the officer was suspended from duties on Wednesday.
A handful of top officials including the police chief, Seoul mayor and the interior minister have issued public apologies, admitting they had failed to prevent the fatal disaster.
Public anger has grown following the publication earlier this month of transcripts of emergency calls sent to the police that showed that in the four hours before the crowd surge turned deadly, the police had received 11 reports of dangerous crowding in the Itaewon area.
A police “Code 0” alert – requiring the fastest possible response – had been issued for one of the 11 reports of overcrowding, while the second-highest “Code 1” alert had been applied to seven other calls.
Police responded to four of the 11 reports by deploying officers to the sites to disperse crowds. Once dispersed, the officers returned to other duties and no action was taken in the case of the seven remaining emergency calls, local media have reported.
On Monday. South Korean legislators slammed the suspected removal of documents related to the tragedy at a parliamentary session and urged the arrest and punishment of those involved.
South Korea’s National Police Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun had said that an intelligence chief at the Yongsan station had ordered records from the night of the tragedy to be deleted and that he would be investigated.