MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – This summer, a horrifying video of someone dragging a shark behind a boat sparked outrage around the world. Now, months later, the alleged culprits are finally being held accountable.
On Tuesday night, Michael Wenzel, Robert Benac and Spencer Heintz were each charged with aggravated animal cruelty, a felony.
“We charged the people for whom we had probable cause that they committed a crime and that we could prove those charges beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren.
Investigators with the State Attorney’s Office and the FWC combed through more than 60,000 pieces of evidence, most of which came from social media.
“Fish and Wildlife initially thought the jurisdiction was elsewhere. They brought the case to us a few weeks ago, it took a little bit of time to confirm that we had jurisdiction and after that point we moved pretty quickly to actually bring charges,” said Warren.
According to officials, a group of friends was fishing in the Hillsborough waters off Egmont Key when Benac caught a 6-foot blacktip shark and pulled it to the boat’s starboard side.
Using a .38 revolver, Wenzel shot the shark in the left side of the head, near the gills.
After the shooting, the shark, covered in blood, tried to retreat and took an aggressive turn. The men on the boat laughed and celebrated and Heintz yelled, “Get it again, get it again.”
Heintz recorded Benac as he continued to fight with the shark.
Wenzel then fired three shots at the shark as it was pulled near the port side of the boat.
It’s unclear if the bullets hit the shark, but the shark tried to retreat and took another aggressive turn. As this is happening, the men are heard in the video erupting with laughter and cheers once again.
At 5:14 p.m., while on land, Wenzel filmed the shark lying over the gunnel with its tail tied down with a rope. As Nicholas Burns Easterling holds the rope, the men can be heard laughing again.
Another video, filmed by Benac, shows Wenzel operating the boat, dragging the shark at a high rate of speed. Easterling was standing to his right while Heintz was sitting on the port side gunnel. The shark could be seen bouncing and skipping across the water while the men laughed.
Officials obtained another video from Heintz in which Wenzel is heard saying “I think its dead.”
After the video was posted to social media, Benac said they dragged the shark to put it out of its misery. One person told Benac,”You had no right to drag it alive.” To which Benac replied, “I had every right.”
Investigators determined they killed the shark with a spear gun, which is illegal. It was still alive as it bounced above the waves.
To show off, Benac sent the dragging video to renowned shark fisherman Captain Mark Quarantino, or “Mark the Shark,” writing, “Blacktip that we were dragging water backwards over its gills and one of my buddy’s bet the other we couldn’t get the boat on plane.”
Quarantino was horrified and tipped off the authorities.
“They sent me the video first and I thought, ‘Wow this can’t be real, who does this?’” Quarantino recalled. He’s thrilled they’ve finally been caught.
“They’re gonna get what they deserve, I think. And hopefully it’s not a slap on the wrist and that will send a clear message to anybody else who has any idea of doing to another animal, God’s creature,” said Quarantino.
According to officials, Wenzel and Benac are avid fishermen who regularly take part in fishing tournaments and other fishing activities. Wenzel is also a commercial fisherman and holds a valid commercial saltwater fishing license with an RS (Restricted Species) endorsement. Benac holds a valid recreational saltwater fishing license. Eastling holds a valid recreational saltwater fishing license and Heintz holds a valid lifetime recreational fishing license.
Unlike the other three men, Burns Easterling will not be charged. Investigators say he’s been cooperative in the case.
An arraignment date has not been set yet.