Expert witness claims ‘dead shark,’ prosecutor looks ahead

It all stems from a video taken on a fishing trip of four Manatee County men seemingly torturing a live shark that went viral on the internet.

The Hillsborough County prosecutor assigned to the high-profile shark dragging cases wants to punish wrongdoers and deter such behavior — but at least one defense attorney is saying it’s too soon to talk about a plea bargain.

Filed in December 2017, the 13th Circuit case against Michael Wenzel of Palmetto and Robert Benac III of Sarasota was continued Oct. 15 by Judge Mark Wolfe for the seventh time. Both defendants have parents with ties to Manatee County government.

The case began its discovery phase of document requests and depositions in August.

Defense attorneys are claiming a significant development in the Oct. 12 deposition of world-renowned expert Stephen Kajiura of Florida Atlantic University.

Kajiura, who first said the shark was alive, changed his opinion after viewing additional videos from the fishing trip, according to attorneys Charles Britt III of Bradenton and Justin Petredis of Tampa.

While Britt III, representing Wenzel, said he’s “not in the position to plea bargain,” Petredis said the case can go three ways: dismissal, plea or trial, and all “are on the table.”

Petredis said, “I think it’s significant because (a state expert) is saying something that favors the defense. And that happens only occasionally.”

Britt complained Kajiura “was not provided all the facts” before his first deposition and blamed the state for not properly preparing the witness with all of the available footage.

Wenzel’s attorney also cited a lack of cooperation relating to other discovery requests, including producing important documents and another expert witness, Mote Marine Laboratory shark scientist Robert Hueter, for a deposition.

“I’m hopeful for the state’s witness to show up for his deposition,” Britt told The Islander Oct. 17,  but he had no firm commitment. He also said he plans to file a motion to compel documents previously requested from the state.

Assistant State Attorney Aaron Hubbard did not return Oct. 18-19 calls and emails for comment on the Kajiura testimony.

The proceedings began with Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s arrest of three of the four men on a June 2017 fishing trip near Egmont Key.

Wenzel and Benac, now 22 and 29, and two other men allegedly dragged a blacktip shark at high speed behind their boat. Also, a black nose shark was shot during the trip.

Pending against Wenzel and Benac are felony charges of aggravated animal cruelty for shooting and dragging the blacktip shark and a misdemeanor charge for breaking FWC rules for spearing a black nose shark.

Of the two other men, Spencer Heintz was dropped from the case in May and Nicholas Burns Easterling, who grew up on Anna Maria Island, cooperated with the investigation and was never charged.


The prosecutor’s opinion

In an Aug. 28 interview, the prosecutor spoke about his expectations for the cases.

Once the defense is “up to speed,” Hubbard expects the two sides will begin negotiations for a plea bargain or, if they decide not to take the state’s offers, the defendants could enter “an open plea, beg for mercy and take their chances in front of a judge.”

About the likelihood of the defendants looking for a deal that doesn’t include jail time, he said, “I don’t know if we’ll ever come to that.”

“We’re concerned with punishing them and concerned with deterring this type of behavior,” Hubbard told The Islander in August.

The prosecutor also said losing their state fishing privileges could be on the table.

FWC spokesman Rob Klepper wrote in an Oct. 18 email that Wenzel holds two lifetime licenses: a Florida sportsman’s license purchased in 2014 and a saltwater fishing license purchased in 2009.

Benac purchased an annual saltwater fishing license in July 2018, according to Klepper.

“Obviously, we want to keep them from engaging in that activity again,” Hubbard said about a possible plea bargain.

Conversely, the Hillsborough prosecutor said the defense could opt for a trial.

Though Hubbard believes it may be a “defense tactic,” Wenzel’s attorney filed a June 12 motion to dismiss the misdemeanor count, claiming an FWC publication led a reasonable person to believe spearing a shark is not illegal.

Hubbard called reliance on the pamphlet “misguided” and contrary to common sense.

“It’s like saying I thought I could drive drunk because I misread the billboard.”

Neither defendant appeared for the Oct. 15 hearing where the Dec. 4 court date was chosen.

The next hearing is at 9 a.m. Dec. 4 in the Criminal Court of Hillsborough County, 401 N. Jefferson St., Tampa.