Bureau Report + Agencies
MELBOURNE/ SYDNEY: One of three men who are being investigated for suspected drug trafficking two weeks after they were rescued at sea has been arrested.
The 36-year-old man was apprehended in Darwin and was due to appear in court on Thursday, police said.
The trio was found clinging to an esky cool box off Western Australia (WA) on 1 February.
Police say they claimed they were out fishing when their boat capsized but authorities later discovered 365kg of cocaine in at least two locations, sparking a hunt for the men. They are suspected of involvement in an international drug shipment.
The arrested man, Aristides Avlontis, faces a charge of importing a commercial quantity of a border-controlled drug, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) said.
Police are still searching for Mate Stipinovich, 49, and Karl Whitburn, 45, one of whom is the registered owner of the capsized boat. The two are believed to be in WA.
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 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.
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.
Cocaine not ‘safe’
Acting Commander Graeme Marshall from the Australian Federal Police urged the men to contact police.
He believed the cocaine would have been distributed throughout the community causing more than $235 million in drug-related harm, including associated crime and healthcare.
“The interception of this amount of drugs would be a significant blow to a well-resourced syndicate, and prevents millions of dollars of drug profit from flowing back into the group to fund their next criminal venture or lavish lifestyles,” he said.
Drugs found on boat
Police on Tuesday revealed they were searching for the three men who were rescued from the capsized boat.
They said they needed public assistance to find the men with arrest warrants issued for the trio.
Police want to speak to Perth men Mate Stipinovich, 49, and Karl Whitburn, 45.
They also want to speak with Aristides Avlontis, 36, who they believe is from the Northern Territory.
He said there was a perception by some in the community that cocaine was a safe drug.
“Let me be clear, it is not,” he said.