TAMPA – Prosecutors have dropped felony animal cruelty charges against one of three men accused of dragging a live shark behind a speeding boat.
Spencer Heintz, 23, of Palmetto, is no longer facing the two third-degree felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty for his alleged role in the incident that happened June 26, 2017.
During a brief court hearing that took place in Tampa on Tuesday, May 1, prosecutors announced they were dropping the charges against Heintz.
Heintz was represented at the hearing by Tampa attorney Paul Sisco.
Heintz did not appear before Judge Mark Wolfe on Tuesday morning, nor did Robert “Bo” Benac, 29, or Michael Wenzel, 21, the other two men still facing charges in this case. A fourth person aboard the boat that day, Nick Easterling, was not charged.
According to Mike Moore, public information officer for the 13th Judicial Circuit, all three of the defendants waived their appearances before Tuesday’s hearing took place.
Regarding Heintz, Moore said, “He may at some point be called to be a witness – that’s what his attorney was saying afterwards.”
Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren issued a statement that said, “Any person who has viewed the video from this incident should be outraged, but as prosecutors we must evaluate the evidence and law without emotion or prejudice. After additional analysis, we decided to drop the charges against Mr. Heintz, who was largely a spectator, and move forward with the more culpable defendants for their senseless animal cruelty.”
On Wednesday, Maya Brown, Warren’s executive assistant, provided additional information.
“They determined after reviewing the evidence that Mr. Heintz was more so as a spectator than actually participating in the criminal activity. They determined they were going to cease prosecution against him. The charges are dropped,” Brown said.
Brown said Heintz did not enter into a plea bargain in exchange for his cooperation or testimony and he could still be deposed under oath and/or called as a witness in the cases against Wenzel and Benac.
“They’re planning to have him cooperate, but to what extent I’m not sure,” she said.
According to Brown, nothing significant happened at Tuesday’s hearing regarding Benac and Wenzel.
“Most of the hearing was dedicated to Mr. Heintz,” she said of the legal proceeding that lasted approximately 10 minutes.
Brown said a status hearing for Wenzel and Benac has been scheduled for Wednesday, June 13. A trial date has not been set and Brown said it’s possible the defendants could enter into a plea deal before a trial takes place.
In separate legal actions, Easterling was questioned under oath at the State Attorney’s Office Tuesday afternoon. Also questioned that day were Mote Marine Laboratory’s Center for Shark Research Director Robert Hueter, from Sarasota, and two additional shark experts from Port Charlotte and Boca Raton.
During the investigation, the three shark experts were shown video of the shark being dragged and asked if they thought the shark had been dragged alive. The scientists believed the shark was likely alive and died as a result of the injuries then sustained.
In July, video of the shark dragging incident taken by the young men themselves was shared on social media and soon went viral worldwide. This attracted the attention of media outlets nationwide and beyond and prompted an investigation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The ensuing investigation resulted in the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office filing animal cruelty charges against Heintz, Benac and Wenzel in December 2017.
Benac, of Sarasota, is still facing two third-degree felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty and one second- degree misdemeanor count of illegal method of taking a shark. His mother, Betsy Benac, is a Manatee County commissioner.
Wenzel, of Palmetto, also faces 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.
Additional video obtained by investigators shows Benac using a speargun to shoot a different shark that was caught earlier that day. Another video shows Wenzel using a .38-caliber handgun to shoot the shark that was later dragged behind the boat he piloted. State law prohibits taking a shark by any means other than with a hook and line.
The incident occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, near Egmont Key, a few miles northwest of Anna Maria Island.