Crime

Three men face animal cruelty charges in shark-dragging video case

Nearly five months after video surfaced on social media of a shark being dragged by a speeding boat, three men are facing animal abuse charges as a result of the investigation sparked by public outrage.

Robert Lee “Bo” Benac, 28, Michael Wenzel, 21, and Spencer Heintz, 23, have each been charged with two counts of aggravated animal cruelty, a third-degree felony, according to a press release from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Tuesday. Benac and Wenzel also face one count of illegal method of take of a shark, a second-degree misdemeanor.

Charges have been filed by the State Attorney’s Office in Hillsborough County, not in Manatee. In October, State Attorney Ed Brodsky announced that both offices would be investigating as “many of these incidents occurred in Hillsborough,” he said.

“The State Attorney’s Office is committed to holding these men accountable for having engaged in such senseless and unjustifiable animal cruelty,” 13th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Andrew H. Warren said in a press release. “We thank the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for their work in investigating these crimes, and we stand with them, along with Florida’s fishing and hunting communities, and all those who cherish our precious natural resources, in condemning the torture of our marine wildlife.”

In July, a video came to light of at least four men looking at a shark being dragged behind a speeding boat. The video brought about a petition calling for legal action against the people in the video and was signed by thousands. It was even called out by Gov. Rick Scott, who said he wanted laws to prevent “such inhumane acts.”

On Tuesday, Scott said, “I was outraged by the sickening video of a shark being horribly abused earlier this year. Florida has no tolerance for this mistreatment, and I am proud of the hard work of FWC law enforcement during this investigation to hold these individuals accountable for their horrific actions.”

“As we’ve said since this video and other images came to light, these actions have no place in Florida, where we treasure and conserve our natural resources for everyone,” FWC Chairman Bo Rivard said in a press release. “We appreciate the patience and support of the public as our law enforcement investigators worked with the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office to identify a number of serious violations that will be brought to the courts for adjudication. It is our hope these charges will send a clear message to others that this kind of behavior involving our fish and wildlife will not be tolerated.”

According to an FWC release, there were “numerous criminal violations” confirmed after investigators searched extensively through social media, conducted interviews and spoke with shark experts, including Mote Marine Laboratory’s Robert Hueter.

According to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office website, Benac was arrested around 5 p.m. and remained in jail on a $4,250 bond. Heintz was arrested at 2:19 p.m. and released about a half hour later after posting a $4,000 bond. Wenzel’s booking information and mugshot weren’t immediately available Tuesday evening.

Heintz’s criminal history includes minor boating infractions while Wenzel has a prior arrest for underage drinking, carrying a concealed weapon and possession of false identification. Wenzel’s father is Robert Wenzel, the Manatee County planning section manager; Benac’s mother is Betsy Benac, chairwoman of the Manatee County Commission.

When reached by phone, Betsy Benac had no comment.

Suspected violations can be reported to FWC by calling the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922 or texting Tip@MyFWC.com.

Jessica De Leon: 941-745-7049, @JDeLeon1012

Hannah Morse: 941-745-7055, @mannahhorse

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