‘Shark drag’ case pushed to October

Accused shark draggers Michael Wenzel and Robert Benac III have a new court date.

At an Aug. 21 hearing, 13th Circuit Judge Mark Wolfe set a 9 a.m. Oct. 15 date for a disposition.

Estella Gray, director of communications for the Hillsborough County state attorney’s office, said the hearing likely will be another status hearing and it is unknown if the defendants will appear in court.

The men were not present in court Aug. 21.

The case stems from a fishing trip last summer when Wenzel, now 22, and Benac, now 29, and two other men were on a boat that dragged a blacktip shark at high speed while the men laughed. A black nose shark also was shot with a gun during the course of the day.

A video of the dragging went viral on social media.

Wenzel and Benac face one misdemeanor count for spearing a black nose shark and two felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty, one for shooting and one for dragging a blacktip shark.

In May, the state dropped the charges against another man on the speedboat, Spencer Heintz.

In June, Wenzel’s attorney Charles Britt III filed a motion to dismiss the misdemeanor count, alleging a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission publication led a reasonable person to believe spearing for shark is not illegal. The state had not responded to the motion as of Aug. 24.

The state attorney chose not to charge a fourth man in the boat, Nicholas Burns Easterling, who cooperated with the state. Easterling grew up on Anna Maria Island.

The case was filed by the Hillsborough prosecutor in December 2017 after an FWC investigation and public condemnation of the shark draggers by Gov. Rick Scott, animal rights groups and famed shark hunter, Mark the Shark, to whom Wenzel allegedly bragged about the June 2017 fishing trip.

— Kathy Prucnell

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