Investigation nets 3 arrests for ‘shark drag’ abuse

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This collage includes a still photo from the video that depicts the shark-dragging and three of the four participants.
Robert Benac III, 28
Spencer Heintz, 23
Michael Wenzel, 21

Three men have been arrested for animal cruelty, resulting from a shark-dragging video that drew widespread public outrage this summer.

And there is new, emerging information from the investigation.

Robert Benac III, 28, of Sarasota, and Michael Wenzel, 21, and Spencer Heintz, 23, both of Palmetto, were arrested Dec. 12. They each face two felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty against a blacktip shark June 26 in the waters near Egmont Key in Hillsborough County.

Benac and Wenzel also were charged with a misdemeanor for breaking a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rule against spearing a blacknose shark.

The three men turned themselves into authorities in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and were released.

Benac and Wenzel posted $4,250 in bonds and Heintz posted a $4,000 bond.

A fourth man on the fishing trip, Nicholas Burns Easterling, was not charged.

“The fourth individual in the video provided information and cooperated with investigators and is not being charged in this case,” FWC spokesman Rob Klepper said in a Dec. 13 email.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission began investigating July 24 after complaints poured in about animal abuse videos and photos posted on Instagram and Facebook, including the viral 10-second video of a blacktip shark being dragged behind a vessel at a high rate of speed.

Manatee County prosecutors worked with the FWC to gain access to social media accounts with search warrants.

In October, the 13th Circuit State Attorney became involved when investigators determined the alleged offenses occurred in Hillsborough County.

Assistant State Attorney Christine Shiver Brown filed formal charges Dec. 11 against the trio.

FWC investigator George McCorkle provided a probable cause affidavit to support the arrests.

According to McCorkle’s affidavit, photographs, videos and texts revealed Wenzel shot the blacktip shark before dragging it behind his boat near Egmont Key in Hillsborough County.

The FWC and 13th Circuit prosecutor’s office determined shooting the blacktip shark and then dragging it at high speed warranted two charges of animal cruelty.

The trio, along with Easterling of Palmetto, formerly of Holmes Beach, left Wenzel’s home, also in Palmetto, for the June 26 fishing trip.

Benac allegedly impaled a blacknose shark with a spear gun at 3:08 p.m. Thirteen minutes later, Wenzel recorded Benac, Easterling and Heintz dancing on the bow of the boat.

Benac then hooked the 6-foot blacktip shark near Egmont Key and, at 5:08 p.m., Heintz recorded Benac as he attempted to bring the blacktip closer to the boat, where Wenzel shot the shark in its head with a handgun, according to the affidavit.

“Blood is immediately seen exiting the shark,” the affidavit states.

“Despite being shot, the shark takes an aggressive turn in an attempt to retreat. The men are heard celebrating by laughing, while Heintz yells, “Get it again, get it again,” the affidavit continues.

Heintz recorded Benac’s fight with the blacktip shark.

Wenzel recorded the shark lying over the gunnel at 5:14 p.m., showing the shark’s tail roped, according to the PCA.

The report also cites three scientists, who concluded there was a “high probability” the shark was alive when it was dragged behind the boat.

Gov. Rick Scott wrote letters in July announcing zero tolerance for such abuse and calling for tougher legislation.

As far as tougher legislation in the hopper, the FWC continues “to move forward with the governor’s suggestion to review and strengthen regulations as necessary to help deter this type of behavior in the future,” Klepper said in Dec. 14 email.

After hearing of the charges, the governor released the following statement: “Florida has no tolerance for this mistreatment, and I am proud of the hard work of FWC law enforcement during this investigation to hold these individuals accountable for their horrific actions.”

Sport fishers, guides and animal rights activists have condemned the men’s actions, signed petitions and sought their prosecution.

Some called for the men to lose their fishing licenses for life.

Paula Moore, senior writer for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation, in a Dec. 14 email to The Islander, said: “If any good can come of the outcry over the sickening shark-dragging video, perhaps it’s that more people will understand that animals aren’t for us to use and abuse — and leave them in peace.”

Wenzel has a commercial saltwater fishing license. Benac and Heintz are recreational fishers.

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