1 in ‘shark drag’ case seeks to reduce charges

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Benac
Wenzel

Nearly a year after a video of a fateful boat ride went viral, there’s been another turn in court.

An attorney for Michael Wenzel, 22, of Palmetto, filed a June 12 motion to dismiss one of three counts in the “shark drag” case pending against his client in the 13th Judicial Circuit Court.

With the motion, Wenzel’s attorney, Charles M. Britt III, asks the court to throw out a misdemeanor count for spearing a black nose shark, saying a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission publication leads “a reasonable person” to believe spearing for sharks is not illegal and alleging “(Bo) Benac shot and killed with a speargun,” while Wenzel drove the boat.

No similar motion was filed the week of June 11 on behalf of Benac and, at press time, no hearing was set for Wenzel’s motion, according to online records.

The prosecutor will respond in writing to the Wenzel motion, according to 13th Judicial State Attorney communications director Estella Gray.

In addition to the misdemeanor count, Wenzel and Benac, 29, of Sarasota, face two felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty, one for shooting and one for dragging a blacktip shark on a June 26, 2017, fishing trip near Egmont Key.

Both men pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The case began after a 10-second video of four men on a boat, shown dragging a shark at high speed, went viral on social media in the summer of 2017.

Public outrage echoed worldwide, from animal rights activists, fishing enthusiasts to Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

The FWC began its investigation with the 12th Circuit-Manatee County prosecutor’s office.

The investigation later transferred to the 13th Circuit and, Dec. 11, 2017, the State Attorney’s Office in Hillsborough County filed the animal cruelty cases against three Manatee County men.

In May, the state dropped all charges against Spencer Heintz, 23, of Palmetto, saying he was largely a spectator. Heintz is cooperating with the prosecution.

Nicholas Burns Easterling, 25, who grew up on Anna Maria Island, was in the boat but not charged. According to Courthouse News Service May report, he provided information and cooperated with the investigation.

Heintz, Benac and Wenzel have prominent Manatee County parents. Heintz is son of a personal injury attorney. Benac’s mother is a county commissioner. Wenzel’s father is a county planning section manager.

At a June 13 hearing, the cases against Wenzel and Benac were postponed to 9 a.m., Tuesday, Aug. 21, in the Criminal Court of Hillsborough County, 401 N. Jefferson St., Tampa.

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