The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office announced charges against three individuals connected to the video of a shark being dragged behind a boat at high speed.
The individuals charged are --
Michael Wenzel, 21, of Palmetto. Two felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty (third-degree felony); one misdemeanor count of illegal method of take - shark (second-degree misdemeanor).
Robert Lee Benac, 28, of Bradenton. Two felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty (third-degree felony); one misdemeanor count of illegal method of take – shark (second-degree misdemeanor).
Spencer Heintz, 23, of Palmetto. Two felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty (third-degree felony).
The charges resulted from a four-month investigation into the video and other disturbing images on social media "involving shocking disregard for Florida’s natural resources," Rob Klepper, public information coordinator of FWC's Law Enforcement Division, said in a written statement Tuesday night.
Klepper said aggravated animal cruelty is punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a $10,000 fine; second-degree misdemeanor by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Posted in July, the disturbing 11-second video shows the shark hitting the surface of the water and flipping around before the cameraman turns the lens to show three others on the boat, laughing and pointing at the animal. One man can be heard saying, "Look, it’s already almost dead."
The posting went viral overnight. Public outrage was immediate. So was the cry to sign a Change.org petition demanding the men responsible have their fishing licenses permanently revoked, serve time in jail and complete 1,000 hours of community service "to teach these young men to treat our Florida wildlife with respect." And the FWC quickly launched its investigation.
Even Gov. Rick Scott weighed in, saying he wanted laws to prevent “such inhumane acts."
“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 Commission Chairman Bo Rivard. “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.”
Added Andrew H. Warren, state attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit, “The State Attorney’s Office is committed to holding these men accountable for having engaged in such senseless and unjustifiable animal cruelty. 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."
During the course of the investigation, FWC officers confirmed the criminal violations that resulted in felony and misdemeanor charges. Investigators conducted extensive research into the suspects’ social media activity, conducted numerous interviews and spoke with a number of shark experts.
FWC officers are asking the public to help by reporting suspected violations: Call the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922) or text Tip@MyFWC.com.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith