Shark dragging incident has Island ties

Shark dragging

The first week of an ongoing Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) investigation into an online video of a shark being dragged behind a speeding boat produced public outcry, but little official information.

FWC received a tip on July 24 and investigators quickly identified the individuals in the video with help from the public. Their identities will not be confirmed while the investigation is ongoing and no timetable has been provided.

Social media and media sources locally and worldwide identified the four potential suspects as Michael Wenzel, Robert “Bo” Benac, Burns Easterling and Spencer Heintz. Wenzel has been identified as the boat captain and Easterling as the one in the foreground laughing and saying, “Look, it’s already almost dead.”

A picture of the shredded shark was taken after the boat docked.

All four men are in their early to late 20s, have past or present associations to Palmetto/Manatee County addresses and are known to frequent some of the Island’s bars. Easterling worked at an Island restaurant, but it’s not known if he’s still employed.

Manatee County court records indicate all four men had previous run-ins with the law, and Wenzel and Heintz have also been cited for boating violations.

Benac’s mom is a Manatee County Commissioner and Wenzel’s dad is a county planning section manager. Easterling’s dad once owned the property where Waterline Marina Resort now stands and Heintz’s dad is a Bradenton attorney.

Growing concerns

After the video went viral, additional photos that Wenzel, Benac and others posted online began to surface. One shows Wenzel holding a protected brown pelican; another shows him and friends holding a protected spotted eagle ray, with a reference to shark bait. Another shows Wenzel holding what appears to be a dead dog, with a reference to bait. Another shows Wenzel and Benac pouring beer down a Goliath grouper’s mouth. Wenzel was investigated by FWC in 2015, but no charges were pressed.

“FWC has received numerous additional images and videos and investigators are looking into this information as well. It is too early to speculate as to what, if any, violations took place, however, the FWC would like to state that the lack of respect shown for our precious natural resources is disheartening and disturbing,” a FWC statement said.

FWC is now investigating a video that shows beer being poured into the gills of a hammerhead shark, with a caption that mentions a beer bong.

An anonymous FWC employee said FWC and the state attorney’s office are under intense pressure to press charges, which may depend partially on whether the dragged shark was a member of a protected species. Regarding past incidents, it was noted that pressing charges based on photographic evidence alone is legally challenging.

On Friday, Gov. Rick Scott sent a letter to FWC Chairman Brian Yablonski that said, “The brutality and disrespect shown to this animal is sickening. I encourage FWC to review Florida’s fishing regulations and state statutes to ensure such inhumane acts are strictly prohibited.”

Fishing community reacts

“If it was a commercial fisherman and there was a picture like that on Facebook, we would be prosecuted. They prosecute us for lesser violations than that,” said Mark Coarsey, president of the Manatee Chapter of Fishing for Freedom.

Charter captain Kathe Fannon said, “I want to know what FWC is doing about it. If they’re bold enough to put what they put on their social media pages, what are they doing that they’re not putting on there? A fishing license is a privilege, and those boys should never be able to possess a Saltwater Products License, a fishing license or a captain’s license again.”

Charter fishing captain Scott Moore said, “We need more law enforcement on the water and a restructured shore-based fishing license to help pay for it – a true saltwater fishing license. People fish off the pier for free and they fish off my boat for free.

“We need to provide more funds to protect our natural resources. The stage legislature is dropping the ball, not FWC. You can’t pass laws if FWC doesn’t have the money to enforce them. We also need to educate people.”