Updated Dec. 15, 2017
MANATEE COUNTY – The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office have charged Manatee County residents Robert “Bo” Benac, Spencer Heintz and Michael Wenzel for alleged crimes connected with video of a shark being dragged behind a fast-moving boat.
The charges were announced in a FWC press release on Tuesday, Dec. 12. Criminal report affidavits released by the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office provided additional details. The charges stemmed from a four-month investigation led by the FWC.
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. He is the son of Betsy Benac, a Manatee County Commissioner.
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. His father, Robert Wenzel, is planning section manager for Manatee County.
Heintz, 23, of Palmetto, is charged with two third-degree felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty.
All three men turned themselves in and were released on bond. Nick Easterling, who also was aboard the boat, 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.
“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 in a press release.
According to the state attorney’s report, FWC received multiple complaints on July 24 regarding a video observed on Instagram and Facebook that showed a blacktip shark being dragged at high speed. Search warrants then provided investigators with time- and date-stamped video and photographic evidence.
The report says Benac, Easterling, Heintz and Wenzel departed from Wenzel’s waterfront home in Palmetto on June 26 and traveled west toward the Gulf of Mexico in a 22-foot boat.
“While fishing in state waters near Egmont Key, Benac shot a blacknose shark with a speargun,” according to the report. “Heintz took a photo of Benac holding the speargun and Wenzel holding a gaffed blacknose shark with a spear completely through it. Wenzel video recorded Benac, Easterling and Heintz dancing on the bow of the boat. In the video, Benac is still in possession of the speargun.”
Egmont Key is approximately two miles north of Anna Maria Island.
“Less than two hours later, 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.
“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.’”
Dr. Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research for Mote Marine Laboratory, and two other shark experts independently reviewed the videos.
“All three doctors described seeing movements of the shark that would indicate that it is alive while it is being dragged. Yet, the doctors could not state that within a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that the shark is alive while being dragged. However, Benac repeatedly engaged in chat-style conversations via Instagram and informed several Instagram users that the purpose of dragging the shark was to kill it. One person told Benac that, ‘You had no right to drag it alive.’ Benac replied, ‘I had every right,’ ” according to the report.
The doctors agreed there is a high probability the shark was alive while being dragged, therefore exposing it to excessive, unnecessary suffering that resulted in a cruel death.
“At no time did any of the occupants of the vessel make any attempts to stop the activity. The events that took place involving the shark dragging constitute animal cruelty,” the report concludes.
The report also says, “It is unlawful to discharge firearms for the purpose of killing fish. It is unlawful to harvest any shark from state waters by use of any gear other than hook and line.”