Shark dragging defendants plead not guilty

Shark dragging mugs
Manatee County residents Robert "Bo" Benac, Spencer Heintz and Michael Wenzel have been charged in connection with last summer's shark dragging incident. - Submitted

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY – Robert “Bo” Benac, Spencer Heintz and Michael Wenzel pled not guilty on Wednesday, Jan. 10 to all charges stemming from a shark-dragging incident caught on video last July.

Attorneys for the defendants entered the pleas before Judge Mark Wolfe in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, according to Rena Frazier, Chief of Policy and Communication for the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office.

Frazier said the next hearing is scheduled for March.

Benac, 28, of Bradenton, is charged with two third-degree felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty and one second-degree misdemeanor count of illegal method of taking a shark.

Heintz, 23, of Palmetto, is charged with two third-degree felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty.

Wenzel, 21, of Palmetto, is charged with two third-degree felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty and one second-degree misdemeanor count of illegal method of taking a shark.

Nick Easterling also was on board the boat, but was not charged.

Wenzel is a commercial fisherman and holds a commercial saltwater fishing license with a restricted species endorsement. Benac, Easterling and Heintz hold recreational fishing licenses.

The self-shot video that went viral worldwide in July led to an investigation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The results were turned over to the State Attorney’s Office.

“It is our hope these charges will send a clear message to others that this kind of behavior involving our fish and wildlife will not be tolerated,” FWC Chairman Bo Rivard said when the charges were announced in mid-December.

FWC report

During the investigation, FWC investigators obtained several additional videos that helped them piece together what happened in the waters off Egmont Key on June 26.

“Benac caught a blacktip shark on hook and line near Egmont Key. Heintz recorded Benac retrieving the shark. Wenzel shoots the shark one time with a .38 revolver. Despite being shot, the shark takes an aggressive turn to retreat. After the shark is shot, all occupants are heard celebrating. Heintz recorded Benac continuing the fight with the shark. This video shows Wenzel shoot at the shark three times with a .38 revolver as it is pulled close to the vessel,” according to the FWC report.

“At 1714 hours (5:14 p.m.), the shark had been landed and Wenzel recorded it lying over the gunnel and tail roped. The occupants can be heard laughing while Easterling holds the rope. The next 10-second video recorded by Benac shows Wenzel operating the vessel. Benac records the shark as it’s dragged across the top of the water at high speed. As the camera pans, Heintz can be seen recording the same incident. Heintz’ recording is 30 seconds long. During both videos, all occupants can be seen and heard laughing. At the end of Heintz’ recording, Wenzel states, ‘I think it’s dead,’” the report states.

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