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See the ‘secret compartment’ in a backyard spa where man accused of smuggling 365kg of cocaine was found hiding – after he and two others were found floating in the ocean on the back of an esky

  • Mate Stipinovich, 49, found hiding in WA house after six-week manhunt
  • Accused of drug trafficking with Aristides Avlonitis, 36, and Karl Whitburn, 45
  • Trio were rescued from ocean and boat loaded with cocaine found a week later 

Three men who were dramatically rescued clinging to an esky after their boat capsized are now behind bars over 365kg of cocaine.

Mate Stipinovich, 49, was found hiding under a back patio spa when police raided a home in Byford, south of Perth, on Wednesday night. 

He was the last of the trio to be caught after a six-week manhunt across at least two states on suspicion of drug trafficking.

What started as an uplifting story of survival took just a week to turn into a criminal investigation after the upturned boat was discovered.

Stipinovich, 49, was found hiding in a secret compartment under a back patio spa when police raided a home in Byford, south of Perth

Stipinovich, 49, was found hiding in a secret compartment under a back patio spa when police raided a home in Byford, south of Perth

Stipinovich and his alleged co-conspirators Aristides Avlonitis, 36, and Karl Whitburn, 45, were plucked from the ocean on February 1.

Their cabin cruiser Aces and Eights flipped in rough seas and they only survived by using the esky for flotation about 17km offshore from Albany, Western Australia.

That seemed to be the end of it until a black plastic bag with packages of cocaine, about 40kg all up, was found floating in the water on February 7.

Eight more were found on board the seven-metre boat when it turned up a day later, overturned off Peaceful Bay, about 45km west of Denmark.

Australian Federal Police, who already found their claim of being on a fishing trip fishy, put out an alert for the trio, who were not keen to speak with cops.

The secret compartment police hauled Stipinovich out of when they tracked him down

The secret compartment police hauled Stipinovich out of when they tracked him down

Stipinovich (left) and his alleged co-conspirators Aristides Avlonitis, 36, (centre) and Karl Whitburn, 45, (right) were plucked from the ocean on February 1, and wanted men just a week later

Stipinovich (left) and his alleged co-conspirators Aristides Avlonitis, 36, (centre) and Karl Whitburn, 45, (right) were plucked from the ocean on February 1, and wanted men just a week later 

Avlonitis was tracked to a rural home near Darwin on February 15 and Whitburn in Perth’s north-eastern suburbs in March 9.

All three were charged with importing a commercial quantity of a border controlled drug, punishable by life in prison. Stipinovich faced court in Perth on Thursday.

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Police alleged the men picked up the drugs after they were left to float in the ocean by another vessel, before their boat capsized in the waves.

How the cocaine was put in the ocean and whom by is still under investigation.

AFP Sergeant Kristen Swan said the seizure was one of the biggest on record and saved the community more than $190 million in drug-related harm.

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