Investigators conducted exhaustive research into the suspects’ social media activity, conducted numerous interviews and spoke with a number of subject matter experts on sharks.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office announced charges against three individuals connected to a video of a shark being dragged behind a boat at high speed. The charges resulted from a four-month long investigation into the video and other disturbing images on social media involving shocking disregard for Florida’s natural resources.
During the course of the investigation, FWC officers confirmed numerous criminal violations, resulting in felony and misdemeanor charges. Investigators conducted exhaustive research into the suspects’ social media activity, conducted numerous interviews and spoke with a number of subject matter experts on sharks.
“As we’ve said since this video and other images came to light, these actions have no place in Florida, where we treasure and conserve our natural resources for everyone,” said Commission Chairman Bo Rivard. “We appreciate the patience and support of the public as our law enforcement investigators worked with the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office to identify a number of serious violations that will be brought to the courts for adjudication.
"It is our hope these charges will send a clear message to others that this kind of behavior involving our fish and wildlife will not be tolerated.”
The suspects and their charges are as follows:
Michael Wenzel, 21, of Palmetto: Two felony counts of Aggravated Animal Cruelty and one misdemeanor count of Illegal Method of Take-Shark (second-degree misdemeanor).
Robert Lee Benac, 28, of Bradenton: Two felony counts of Aggravated Animal Cruelty (third-degree felony) and one misdemeanor count of Illegal Method of Take-Shark (second-degree misdemeanor).
Spencer Heintz, 23, of Palmetto: Two felony counts of Aggravated Animal Cruelty (third-degree felony).
The 10-second clip shows a boat dragging the shark, tethered to the end of the boat, as it thrashes and repeatedly slams against the wake of the engine, as four men look back, seeming to enjoy what they see.
“Look it’s already almost dead,” one of the men in the boat said, pointing toward the shark.
When the incident happened last July, Gov. Rick Scott called the incident “disturbing” and “sickening.” Florida House Rep. Alex Miller, a Sarasota Republican, has said that if the men are not ultimately prosecuted as a result of the video, she will introduce new legislation next year to clarify the state’s animal abuse laws on the water.
“The State Attorney’s Office is committed to holding these men accountable for having engaged in such senseless and unjustifiable animal cruelty. We thank the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for their work in investigating these crimes, and we stand with them, along with Florida’s fishing and hunting communities, and all those who cherish our precious natural resources, in condemning the torture of our marine wildlife,” said Andrew H. Warren, State Attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit, in a Tuesday press release.
The public can help by reporting suspected violations to the FWC. To make a report, call the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922) or text Tip@MyFWC.com.