Cocaine haul sparks hunt for Australian trio rescued at sea

An aerial image of the three men floating at sea with the cooler

A 365kg cocaine haul has prompted Australian authorities to start a hunt for three men they rescued from the sea two weeks ago.

The trio were found clinging to an esky cool box off the coast of Western Australia on 1 February.

Police say they claimed they were out fishing when their boat capsized. But they now allege the men were involved in an international drug shipment and are urging them to turn themselves in.

Authorities initially praised the trio when they were rescued near Eclipse Island, 17km south of Albany in WA, issuing a press release saying their case “highlighted the importance of wearing a lifejacket and carrying an emergency beacon”.

But WA police soon found inconsistencies in the trio’s story and contacted the Australian Federal Police (AFP) who started an investigation.

Six days after the men were rescued, a black plastic-wrapped package containing parcels of cocaine was found on a beach 54km (33 miles) west of Albany.

And the next day an overturned cabin cruiser was discovered with eight similarly wrapped packages, each containing about 40kg of cocaine.

Police believe the drugs were collected from the ocean and being ferried to shore in the boat. How the drugs were initially left in the ocean is not known.

Detectives have now asked the public to help locate Mate Stipinovich, 49, and Karl Whitburn, 45, from Perth, and 36-year-old Aristides Avlontis, who is thought to be in the Northern Territory.

One of the WA men is the registered owner of the capsized boat, police say.

AFP Acting Commander Graeme Marshall said the seizure of the drugs would deal a “significant blow” to a “well-resourced syndicate”.

“The AFP estimates this seizure has saved the community more than $235m in drug-related harm, including associated crime, healthcare and loss of productivity,” he said.


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