Three men in a video that went viral last year depicting them dragging a shark behind a speeding boat near Egmont Key have pleaded not guilty to charges of animal cruelty.
Robert Benac III, 28, of Sarasota, and Michael Wenzel, 21, and Spencer Heintz, 23, both of Palmetto, face two felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty to a blacktip shark.
Benac and Wenzel also were charged with a misdemeanor for spearing a black-nose shark the same day.
Attorneys from Tampa: Justin Petredis for Benac, Stephen Crawford for Wenzel and Paul Sisco for Heintz, filed the not-guilty pleas Jan. 10 in the 13th Circuit Court.
Judge Mark Wolfe was assigned to preside over their cases.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission began investigating animal abuse shown in Instagram and Facebook posts, including a 10-second video of a blacktip shark being dragged behind a vessel at a high rate of speed.
Manatee County prosecutors issued search warrants and worked with the FWC to access social media accounts.
In October 2017, the 13th Circuit State Attorney became involved when investigators determined the alleged offenses occurred in Hillsborough County.
The three men were arrested in December 2017, posted bond and were released.
The shark-drag video was taken June 26, 2017, while the men, with friend Nicholas Burns Easterling, of Palmetto, formerly of Holmes Beach, were on a fishing trip.
Easterling was not charged in exchange for his cooperation with FWC and its investigation.
Gov. Rick Scott wrote letters in July and December announcing zero tolerance for such abuse.
Sport fishers, guides and animal rights activists also condemned the men’s actions, some calling for the men to lose their fishing licenses.
Wenzel has a commercial saltwater fishing license. Benac and Heintz are recreational fishers.
The three cases are set for a disposition hearing at 9 a.m. Friday, March 6, in the Hillsborough Criminal Court, 401 N. Jefferson St., Tampa.