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(2nd LD) Lotte vice chairman found dead ahead of prosecutors' summons

All Headlines 18:14 August 26, 2016

(ATTN: RECASTS dateline; UPDATES with more details in paras 5, 7, 12, 15)

SEOUL/YANGPYEONG, South Korea, Aug. 26 (Yonhap) -- The vice chairman of South Korea's fifth-largest conglomerate Lotte Group was found dead Friday, police said, in an apparent suicide that occurred while he was waiting for a summons by prosecutors over corruption allegations involving the group.

Police found the body of Lee In-won, the group's No. 2 man and close aide of Lotte chairman Shin Dong-bin, on a trail in Yangpyeong, 55 kilometers east of Seoul, after receiving a report from a local resident at around 7:10 a.m. that a man in his 60s was hanging from a tree.

The police said they found Lee's identification on his clothes and are examining the scene, including his car found near the site of the incident.

In a four-page suicide note found in his car, Lee addressed his family, as well as executives and staff members of the group, while expressing loyalty to group Chairman Shin and denying the group's slush fund allegations.

Police said they will not open the full text of the note to the public at the bereaved family's request.

Lee, who lives in central Seoul, did not return home after going out at around 9 or 10 p.m. Thursday, according to the bereaved family. He said he was going out for a workout, they said.

After conducting an autopsy at the National Forensic Service, police said Lee's death was the result of hanging, adding that they have not found any evidence of foul play.

Joining Lotte in 1973, Lee became the first to take a position as the group's vice chairman besides the owning family in 2011.

The 69-year-old was to be summoned by prosecutors at 9:30 a.m. on Friday as a suspect facing charges of a breach of trust and other unlawful activities that have rocked the business conglomerate.

Lee was suspected of playing a critical role in the group's alleged tax evasion worth hundreds of billions of won, some billions of won of slush funds creation and other allegedly shady deals between the group's affiliates.

State prosecutors have been widening their probe into the retail giant after launching a full-fledged raid in June, followed by a series of summons of its executives.

On Thursday, prosecutors questioned Hwang Kak-gyu, the group's No. 3 in charge of strategy planning, for well over 20 hours.

Late last month, Shin Young-ja, the Lotte Foundation chief and daughter of the group's founder, was detained and indicted over alleged bribery and embezzlement.

The prosecutors expressed regret over Lee's death, saying they will review the schedule of future investigation plans.

Still, they said the overall direction of the investigation will remain unchanged.

A senior representative at the law firm Kim & Chang, which is in charge of the group's legal representation, said the deceased was planning to attend the summons, adding they had discussions with Lee over the issue on Thursday.

The official, who asked not to be named, said they will further discuss with the group how to deal with the situation.

In South Korea, it is not rare for a high-profile suspect to commit suicide when undergoing an investigation.

Last year, local businessman Sung Wan-jong committed suicide after leaving a note suggesting that some of President Park Geun-hye's aides took bribes from him, including her now-retired Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo. Sung was found dead just hours before he was set to attend a trial to determine the legitimacy of his arrest.

Former President Roh Moo-hyun jumped off a cliff to his death behind his retirement home in 2009, a year after leaving office, amid a prosecution investigation into allegations that his family members accepted illicit funds.

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