TAMPA – Michael Wenzel, 22, will serve 10 days in a Hillsborough County jail for his role in the much-publicized shark dragging incident that was captured on video in 2017.
Wenzel will also be on probation for 11 months, fulfill 100 hours of community service, have his Florida fishing licenses revoked for five years and pay a $2,500 fine.
Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Judge Mark Wolfe issued Wenzel’s sentence during a Thursday, Feb. 28 hearing at the George Edgecomb Courthouse in Tampa.
In his plea agreement, Wenzel pled guilty to a third-degree felony count of aggravated cruelty to animals. A second and similar third-degree animal cruelty charge was dismissed.
Wentzel also pled guilty to a second-degree misdemeanor charge of a violation of rules relating to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The misdemeanor charge pertained to the illegal taking of a shark. Video obtained during the FWC investigation shows Wenzel using a .38 caliber revolver to shoot the shark that was later dragged behind the boat he piloted. State law prohibits taking a shark by any other means than with a hook and line.
Wenzel, Robert “Bo” Benac and Spencer Heintz were arrested on Dec. 12, 2017 on charges stemming from the dragging of a blacktip shark in the Gulf of Mexico near Egmont Key, a few miles offshore of the city of Anna Maria.
According to the criminal affidavit released by Hillsborough County following the arrests, the boat driven by Wenzel departed from his parents’ home in Palmetto. Wenzel’s father is the planning section manager for Manatee County.
State changes rules on shark fishing
New rules go into effect on July 1 for shark fishing from Florida shorelines and vessels.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) approved several changes to shark fishing regulations in February to increase the survival rate of released sharks, address public safety concerns and improve information gathering for the fishery.
The new rules require a mandatory, free annual permit for shore-based shark fishing for those 16 and older, including those 65 and older who are normally exempt from the fishing license requirement. Those under 16 must meet the permit’s educational requirement unless they are fishing with an adult who holds a permit.
The new rules prohibit chumming while fishing for any species from the beach, and require the immediate release of prohibited shark species caught from shore.
When fishing either from shore or from a vessel, prohibited shark species must remain in the water; non-offset, non-stainless-steel circle hooks are required to target or harvest sharks when using live or dead natural bait; and shark fishermen must possess and use a device capable of quickly cutting the leader or hook when targeting sharks.
The rules were passed after public hearings around the state to address “increasing public concerns about shark mortality and disagreements about the compatibility of shore-based shark fishing and other shore-based recreational activities,” according to the FWC. – Cindy Lane | Sun
The criminal affidavit states that on July 24, 2017, FWC received multiple complaints about the shark dragging video taken aboard the boat and later shared on social media. This prompted an FWC investigation and former Florida Governor Rick Scott also expressed his concerns about the incident.
The ensuing investigation produced additional video footage taken by those aboard the boat and the Office of the State Attorney in Hillsborough County filed animal cruelty charges against Wenzel, Benac and Heintz. The charges against Heintz were later dropped. Nick Easterling was also on the boat, but faced no charges.
On Friday, Mike Moore, public information officer for the 13th Judicial Circuit Court in Hillsborough County, confirmed the details of Wenzel’s sentencing.
“Michael Wenzel did reach a plea agreement with the state on counts 1 and 3, changing his plea from not guilty to a plea of guilty in his best interest. Count 2 was nolle prossed,” Moore said via email.
Moore said Wenzel will serve his jail time in the Hillsborough County jail.
“He is allowed to serve his time on the weekends, beginning next weekend, March 8. He also received credit for the one day he already served,” Moore said.
Moore said the prosecutors would like to see half of Wenzel’s community service hours served at an animal shelter. But according to some media reports, Wenzel’s attorney, Charles Britt, expressed concerns that Wenzel would not be welcome at an animal shelter or a facility that deals with animal cruelty.
Moore said Benac rejected the same plea offer made to Wenzel and his jury trial is scheduled for June 24. Benac’s pretrial hearing is scheduled for June 18.
Like Wenzel, Benac 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. Benac’s mother is a Manatee County commissioner.
When reporting on Wenzel’s sentencing, some media outlets reported that a shark expert had determined the shark was likely dead before being dragged behind the boat at high speed. Moore was asked if that was mentioned during Wenzel’s sentencing hearing.
“It may have been part of the plea negotiations, but it was never brought up the other day in court,” Moore said.
“I imagine it will be in a trial if it moves forward,” he said regarding Benac’s pending trial.
Fishing license suspension
The uniform plea acknowledgment and waiver of rights form Wenzel signed on Feb. 28 states that his fishing license is suspended for five years. The agreement does not state which specific license or licenses are suspended. At the time of his arrest, Wenzel held a commercial saltwater fishing license with a restricted species endorsement.
When contacted Friday, State Attorney’s Office spokesperson Estella Gray said the suspension applies to all fishing licenses held by Wenzel.
When asked what would happen if Wenzel were to be caught fishing with a suspended license, Moore said this would be a violation of Wenzel’s terms of probation and expose him to additional legal consequences.
On Friday, Rob Klepper, Public Information Coordinator for the FWC’s Division of Law Enforcement was contacted and asked if the FWC wished to comment on Wenzel’s plea agreement.
“Since the other defendant in this case has not yet been adjudicated, the FWC is refraining from comment at this time,” Klepper said.
Klepper was asked if Wenzel would face additional legal penalties if caught fishing with a suspended license.
“Yes, a violation of the plea agreement would result in additional charges,” Klepper said.