A crime that sparked an outcry from animal rights activists ended with a whimper for one defendant, who took a plea deal in a bay-area courtroom.
Michael Wenzel, 22, of Palmetto, pleaded guilty Feb. 28 in Hillsborough County Circuit Court to a misdemeanor charge of animal cruelty and using an illegal method to catch a shark.
Wenzel was the boat captain who, along with three friends, caught the attention of environmentalists and animal rights advocates around the world in July 2017, after a video of the them laughing and dragging a shark behind a speeding boat went viral.
Wenzel and Robert Lee Benac, 29, of Bradenton, were charged with two felony counts each of aggravated animal cruelty, as well as a misdemeanor violation of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rules.
In the plea deal taken by Wenzel, one of the felony charges was reduced to a first-degree misdemeanor and the second felony was dropped.
Benac declined to take the state’s deal. He will stand trial June 24 and could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted on all counts.
Wenzel will serve 10 days in jail on weekends beginning March 8.
He will be on 11 months probation and must complete 100 hours of community service. Prosecutors asked that 50 hours be served in an animal shelter, but his defense attorney expressed skepticism that shelters would allow Wenzel access.
Wenzel also must pay a $2,500 fine and lost his commercial fishing license for five years.
The video showed the shark flipping violently on a rope tied to the boat as it was dragged across Tampa Bay waters near Egmont Key.
“Look, it’s already almost dead,” one of the men could be heard saying to laughter.
The Tampa Bay Times reported Wenzel, who appeared to smile during the proceedings when asked if he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, was chided by Judge Mark Wolfe, who asked the defendant, “Is there something funny about this?”
FWC authorities investigated the shark-dragging incident and determined it took place near Egmont Key, putting the proceeding into the Hillsborough County 13th Circuit jurisdiction.
Wenzel’s attorney, Charles Britt, called the plea deal fair, based on the evidence, according to a report in the Tampa Bay Times.
A shark expert, Stephen Kajiura of Florida Atlantic University, had cast doubt in an Oct. 12 deposition as to whether the shark was alive while being dragged behind the boat.
A third man on the boat, Spencer Heintz, 23, of Palmetto, was initially charged along with Wenzel and Benac, but his charges were dropped May 1, 2018.
A fourth man on the boat, Nicholas Burns Easterling, cooperated with the investigation and was never charged.