Benac accepts plea deal in shark dragging case

Benac accepts plea deal in shark dragging case
Robert "Bo" Benac sat alone in the courtroom before he appeared before the judge. - Joe Hendricks | Sun

Updated Sept. 18, 2019 | TAMPA – Robert “Bo” Benac, 30, of Sarasota, agreed to a plea deal this afternoon while appearing before Judge Mark Wolfe in the 13th Circuit Court regarding his participation in a much-publicized shark dragging incident in June 2017.

Benac, Michael Wenzel and Spencer Heintz were arrested on Dec. 12, 2017 on charges stemming from a videotaped incident involving a blacktip shark being dragged behind Wenzel’s boat in the Gulf of Mexico near Egmont Key, approximately two miles offshore of the city of Anna Maria.

Shark dragging
A video showed the shark being dragged behind the boat.

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

Represented by attorney Justin Petredis, Benac stood before Judge Wolfe this afternoon. Benac withdrew his previous not guilty plea and pled guilty to a reduced misdemeanor animal cruelty charge and to a misdemeanor violation of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) rules that prohibit speargunning a shark. A third-degree felony count for dragging a shark was dropped.

When accepting the plea agreement, Benac acknowledged he was giving up his right to a jury trial, which was scheduled to begin on Monday.

According to the plea agreement, Benac will serve 10 days in the Hillsborough County jail. He will serve that time on three consecutive weekends (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) and he receives credit for one day already served. Benac told the judge he would begin serving his jail time this weekend and Wolfe ordered him to appear at the Hillsborough County jail by 5 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13.

Benac was placed on probation for 11 months and will be allowed to fulfill his probation terms in Manatee County, where he resides. Benac must serve 250 hours of community service, with at least 125 hours served at an animal shelter. He can serve the remaining 125 hours of community service in any other allowed fashion or buy those remaining 125 hours out at $10 an hour.

He also is required to participate in a psychiatric evaluation and any treatment as ordered.

In addition, Benac was ordered to pay $2,500 in court costs in lieu of a fine, and his fishing license is revoked for three years.

Per Petredis’ request, Wolfe agreed to withhold adjudication of guilt on both charges, meaning Benac was not technically convicted of either crime, which his record will reflect. Petridis also noted Benac has no prior criminal convictions.

Benac accepts plea deal in shark dragging case
Robert “Bo” Benac was fingerprinted before he left the courtroom Thursday afternoon. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

During the hearing, Assistant State Attorney Aaron Hubbard referenced the incidents that occurred aboard Wenzel’s boat on June 26, 2017.

“During that time a shark was caught by hook and line by Mr. Benac. Video recovered during the investigation showed Mr. Benac catching that shark with hook and line. While that shark was on hook and line, the video shows co-defendant Michael Wenzel using a handgun, firing on multiple occasions into the shark,” Hubbard said.

“There was testimony from Spencer Heintz, and photographs taken, that showed Mr. Benac harvested a shark using a speargun in violation of FWC rules,” Hubbard added.

Benac did not address the media after the hearing, but his attorney did. Petredis said they felt the plea agreement was the best route to take.

Petredis noted the animal cruelty charge pertaining to the actual dragging of the shark was dropped and shared his opinion that this was likely due to the shark already being dead, contrary to a criminal investigator’s report citing “a high probability the shark was alive while it was being dragged behind the boat.”

Co-defendant charges

Wenzel was charged with two third-degree felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty and one second-degree misdemeanor count of illegal method of taking a shark using a means other than hook and line, which is the only means allowed for catching a shark.

Benac accepts plea deal in shark dragging case
Michael Wenzel

In February, Wenzel accepted a plea deal that required him to serve 10 days in a Hillsborough County jail. He was placed on probation for 11 months, ordered to serve 100 hours of community service and pay a $2,500 fine, and his fishing license was revoked for five years.

Heintz was charged with two third-degree felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty, but those charges were later dropped.

Benac accepts plea deal in shark dragging case
Spencer Heintz

Nick Easterling was also on the boat that day, but he was not charged.

Criminal affidavit

According to the criminal affidavit filed in Hillsborough County in December 2017 by Investigator G. McCorkle, FWC received multiple complaints on July 24, 2017 regarding a video observed on Instagram and Facebook that showed a blacktip shark being dragged at high speed. Search warrants provided investigators with time and date stamped video and photographic evidence.

According to the affidavit, Wenzel, Benac, Easterling and Heintz departed from Wenzel’s waterfront home in Palmetto on June 26 and traveled west toward the Gulf of Mexico in a 22-foot boat.

The fates of two sharks are noted in the report.

“While fishing in state waters near Egmont Key, Benac shot a blacknose shark with a speargun. 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,” according to the affidavit.

“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. After the shark is shot, all occupants are heard celebrating. This video shows Wenzel shoot at the shark three times with a .38 revolver,” according to the affidavit.

“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,’ ” according to the affidavit.