Nearly five months after a video surfaced showing a shark being brutally dragged behind a boat on the West Coast of Florida, three Florida men have been charged with felony animal cruelty.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office announced the charges late Tuesday following their lengthy investigation.
“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,” said FWC Chairman Bo Rivard in a news release.
The three men charged are: Michael Wenzel, 21, from Palmetto; Robert Lee Benac, 28, of Bradenton; and Spencer Heintz, 23, of Palmetto. They could not immediately be reached for comment.
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All three were charged with two third-degree felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty. Wenzel and Benac also face a misdemeanor count of using an illegal method to take a shark.
In July, the graphic video went viral and fueled outrage after it was emailed to Capt. Mark Quartiano, a well-known shark hunter who by his own account has killed thousands of sharks. Quartiano shared the video on Instagram, using the hashtags #sowrong #notcool. Even Gov. Rick Scott weighed in, saying he wanted laws to prevent “such inhumane acts,’’ the Bradenton Herald reported.
At the same time, law enforcement began investigating.
While FWC never named anyone connected to the video, people on social media and news outlets identified the men seen in the video as west coast anglers, including Wenzel and Benac, whose mother is chairwoman of the Manatee County commission. When reached by the Bradenton Herald, she declined to comment.
On Tuesday, the FWC said in a release that “investigators conducted exhaustive research into the suspects’ social media activity, conducted numerous interviews and spoke with a number of subject matter experts on sharks,” before filing charges. The FWC also cited “numerous criminal violations.”
Records show Heintz has had minor boating infractions while Wenzel has been arrested before on charges including underage drinking and possessing a fake ID, the Bradenton Herald reported.
“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,” Rivard said in the release.
Anyone with information about suspected animal cruelty can contact FWC’s hotline at 888-404-3922 or test Tip@MyFWC.com