Men in video charged with shark killing amid public outcry
With the court of public opinion cheering them on, FWC investigators threw the law book at three men who had so much fun dragging a shark to pieces in the Gulf of Mexico that they posted videos of the atrocity on Instagram and Snapchat.
The case wasn’t a mystery. Almost at once after the videos and a gruesome still photo appeared in August, acquaintances publicly identified (and many denounced) Michael Wenzel, 21, of Palmetto; Robert Lee Benac, 27, of Bradenton and Spencer Heintz, 23, of Palmetto.
A fourth man on the boat, Michael Easterling, gave the FWC some evidence and was not charged with any of the felonies and misdemeanors lodged against the others. All were charged with two counts of aggravated animal cruelty, a third degree felony with a maximum possible penalty of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
The investigation took about four months because detectives had to sift through 60,000-plus pages of social media stuff that they got with search warrants, FWC spokesman Rob Klepper told the Tampa Bay Times.
The evidence includes video of Benac catching a blacktip shark on hook and line, then shooting it with a .38 caliber pistol as it was reeled in.
According to an arrest affidavit: “After the shark is shot, “all occupants are heard celebrating by laughing while Heintz yells, ‘Get it again! Get it again!’”
The accusation says Benac shot the shark three more times. Another video shows Wenzel driving the boat as the shark is dragged through its wake and the defendants laugh.
FWC said three shark biologists reviewed the videos and thought the shark probably was still alive while that was happening.
The video, not widespread at first, was sent by a recipient to Mark “The Shark” Quartiano, a Miami charter captain who specializes in shark fishing. Quartiano is often denounced for killing big ones for trophies, but he found the spectacle revolting and retransmitted the video. It went viral and was re-broadcast on television, nationally and internationally.
The case instigated public denunciations from new FWC chairman Bo Rivard (“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.”) and even Gov. Rick Scott (“The brutality and disrespect shown to this animal is sickening.”)
If you can handle more details and want to see the videos, go to the Tampa Bay Times’ online report here: www.tampabay.com/news/environment/wildlife/Shark-dragging-video-case-res....