Primary evidence comes from social media posts by the four men involved, according to the state.
As the blacktip shark was caught and dragged toward the 22-foot Aquasport center console vessel anchored near Egmont Key in Hillsborough County, one of the four fisherman pulled out his phone to record a Snapchat video.
The captain of the vessel pulled out his .38 revolver and fired a round into the left side of the shark's head, near the gills. Blood oozed into the water and the shark tried to flee.
All of the fishermen could be heard on video celebrating and laughing.
"Get it again, get it again," yelled one of the men.
This video and many others obtained by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission during a four-month investigation into a viral video of a shark being dragged behind a boat at high speed during the summer resulted in third-degree felony animal cruelty charges Tuesday against three men — two from Palmetto and one from Bradenton. The charges are punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Michael Wenzel, 21, of Palmetto, and Robert Lee Benac, 28, of Bradenton, were charged with two felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty, a third-degree felony, and one misdemeanor count of violation to rules related to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Spencer Heintz, 23, of Palmetto, was charged with two felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty.
The investigation further revealed that the blacktip shark observed in the video was shot and dragged in state waters near Egmont Key in Hillsborough County on June 26. In addition to the blacktip shark being dragged, a blacknose shark also was unlawfully taken by speargun in state waters, reports stated.
Many of the day’s events were recorded via Snapchat, which were date and time stamped.
"These are not typical charges, as we typically don't see this manner of animal cruelty with marine life at our office," said Rena Frazier, a spokeswoman for the State Attorney's Officer of the 13th Judicial Circuit.
Wenzel turned himself in to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. Benac and Heintz turned themselves in to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. All three men are being charged together as part of the same charging document, Frazier said.
“Based upon the actions of Wenzel, Benac and Heintz, the comments made by Benac, and the experience, education and knowledge of sharks,” investigators wrote in their report, “there is a high probability the shark was still alive while it was being dragged behind the boat. Therefore, exposing the live shark to excessive and repeated infliction of unnecessary suffering which ultimately resulted in the cruel death of the shark.”
“At no time did any of the occupants of the vessel make any attempts to stop the activity," and "instead, laughed and recorded the shark bouncing across the top of the water at a high rate of speed,” investigators said. “The events that took place involving the shark dragging constitute animal cruelty and are in no way a widespread practiced used in the fishing industry.”
Multiple attempts by the Herald-Tribune Wednesday to reach Wenzel, Benac and Heintz were unsuccessful.
The FWC obtained a series of videos, photographs and text conversations through search warrants in Manatee County from Wenzel’s, Benac’s and Nicholas Easterling’s social media accounts. Investigators also went through more than 60,000 pages of evidence.
On June 26, Wenzel, Benac, Easterling and Heitz left Wenzel’s waterfront home in Palmetto, the reports said. Traveling west in the Aquasport, they headed toward the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Hillsborough County criminal affidavit.
While fishing in state waters near Egmont Key in Hillsborough County, Benac shot a blacknose shark with a speargun at about 3 p.m. Heintz took a photo of Benac holding the speargun and Wenzel holding a gaffed blacknose shark with a spear through it.
Twenty minutes later, Wenzel shot a video as Benac, Easterling and Heintz danced on the bow of the boat. Benac was holding the speargun.
Less than two hours later, Benac caught a six-foot blacktip shark on a hook and line in state waters near Egmont Key, the reports said.
At 5:08 p.m., Heintz recorded Benac retrieving the shark. In the 10-second video, as the shark is pulled near the right side of the boat by Benac, Wenzel shoots the shark one time with a .38 revolver in the left side of the head, near the gills, the report said.
“All occupants can be heard celebrating by laughing,” according to the report.
At 5:10 p.m., Heintz recorded Benac continuing to fight with the shark. The eight-second video shows Wenzel shoot at the shark three times with the same revolver as it is pulled close to the left side of the boat, the report said.
After the shooting, all occupants cheered and erupted into laughter, the report said.
The report said it was unknown whether any of the bullets hit the shark. However, after being shot at, the shark tried again to flee.
At 5:14 p.m., the shark was landed and Wenzel recorded it lying on its back and tail roped. During the video, the occupants are heard laughing while Easterling holds the rope.
The next 10-second video shows Wenzel driving the boat while Benac records the shark as it’s dragged at high speed. The shark can be seen bouncing and skipping across the surface of the water.
As the camera pans to the port side, Heintz is seen recording the same incident. In both videos, all of the men are seen and heard laughing while the shark is dragged.
At the end of Heintz’s 30-second video, Wenzel said, “I think it’s dead.”
But the shark wasn’t dead, according to Robert Hueter, a senior scientist and director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory; Gregg Poulakis, research associate at FWC; and Stephen Kajiura, a professor of biological sciences at Florida Atlantic University.
All three observed voluntary movement made by the shark, which, according to the report, indicated that the shark was alive during the recording.
They described seeing movements of the shark that would indicate that it was alive while it was being dragged. Although the movements were described as being voluntary, such as flexing the body and moving jaw, the scientists could not state that within a reasonable certainty that the shark was alive while it was dragged.
Wenzel and Benac are avid fishermen who regularly engage in fishing activities, including fishing tournaments. Their social media accounts reflect extensive knowledge regarding species identification and fishing practices. In addition, Wenzel is a commercial fisherman. Wenzel holds a valid commercial saltwater fishing license with a restricted species endorsement.
Benac holds a valid recreational saltwater fishing license. Easterling holds a valid recreational saltwater fishing license. Easterling holds a valid recreational saltwater fishing and hunting license. Heintz holds a valid lifetime recreational fishing license.
“We can’t speculate as to what penalties may be imposed when these cases are adjudicated in the courts,” said Rob Klepper, spokesman for the FWC Law Enforcement Division, when asked if the Commission planned to revoke or suspend their licenses.
According to state law, FWC has the authority to suspend, revoke or deny renewal of any license, permit or other authorization.
All three cases are scheduled for hearings in Hilsborough County.
“The State Attorney’s Office is committed to holding these men accountable for having engaged in such senseless and unjustifiable animal cruelty," said Andrew H. Warren, State Attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit.