Men Praised After Sea Rescue Were Drug Smugglers: Cops

Australian Federal Police hunting for 2 of 3 men who alerted emergency beacon off WA
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 15, 2023 9:37 AM CST
Men Praised After Sea Rescue Were Drug Smugglers: Cops
The recovered boat.   (Australian Federal Police)

A trio of men praised by authorities after they were found clinging to a cooler in the ocean off Western Australia earlier this month are now suspected of smuggling 800 pounds of cocaine. Aristides Avlontis, 36, Mate Stipinovich, 49, and Karl Whitburn, 45, claimed they were fishermen whose boat capsized when they were rescued near Eclipse Island, about 10 miles south of Albany, on Feb. 1. Authorities initially praised the group, saying the case "highlighted the importance of wearing a lifejacket and carrying an emergency beacon," per the BBC. That was days before police found some 800 pounds of cocaine in the area.

Initially, a plastic-wrapped package of cocaine washed up on a beach west of Albany. The following day, eight similar packages were found in an overturned 23-foot boat recovered off Peaceful Bay, per 9News. It was among the largest cocaine busts in the state's history, per ABC Australia. Australian Federal Police "estimates this seizure has saved the community more than $235 million in drug-related harm, including associated crime, healthcare, and loss of productivity," Acting Commander Graeme Marshall says, per the BBC.

The AFP subsequently launched a hunt for the rescued men, who are accused of collecting the drugs from the ocean with the goal of ferrying them to shore and aiding in distributing the drugs across Australia. While Perth residents Stipinovich and Whitburn are believed to be somewhere in Western Australia, Avlontis was taken into custody in the Northern Territory capital of Darwin on Thursday, per ABC. He's to be extradited back to Western Australia to face a charge of importing a commercial quantity of a border-controlled drug. (Read more drug smuggling stories.)

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