Case moves ahead against three men accused in shark-dragging incident

Three men face animal cruelty charges stemming from a viral video that shows a shark being dragged behind a boat on a rope as they laugh each time its body slams the water. Left to right are Spencer Heintz, 23, of Palmetto, Michael Wenzel, 21, of Palmetto and Robert Lee Benac, 28, of Bradenton. [Times files]
Three men face animal cruelty charges stemming from a viral video that shows a shark being dragged behind a boat on a rope as they laugh each time its body slams the water. Left to right are Spencer Heintz, 23, of Palmetto, Michael Wenzel, 21, of Palmetto and Robert Lee Benac, 28, of Bradenton. [Times files]
Published March 6 2018
Updated March 6 2018

TAMPA — The case of three men accused of dragging a shark behind a boat, an incident captured on a video that went viral, continues to move through court.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Mark Wolfe on Tuesday set a May 1 status hearing for Michael Wenzel, Robert Lee "Bo" Benac III and Spencer Heintz. Attorneys for all three men waived their clients’ right to a speedy trial.

Defense attorneys told Wolfe they are in the process of setting deposition dates with prosecutors in a case that outraged animal rights advocates and Gov. Rick Scott, who called the video "sickening." Only Heintz attended the hearing Tuesday, sitting in the back row wearing a jacket and tie.

Attorney Stephen Crawford, who represents Wenzel, declined after the hearing to comment on whether he expects the case to go to trial.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Shark-dragging video case results in three arrests

The dragging video first came to light in July after it was sent to a celebrity shark hunter. Even he posted he had issues with how the shark was shown, repeatedly smacking against the water as the men in the video laughed.

Later in the day, video recorded Benac catching a black tip shark with hook and line — the only legal way to catch a shark in Florida — and then Wenzel shooting it with a .38 revolver as it was pulled close to the boat, court records say.

Wenzel, 21, of Palmetto, was piloting the boat. He faces two felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty and one misdemeanor for using an illegal method to catch a shark. The felony counts are each punishable by up to five years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine, although any punishment will likely be less than that maximum.

Benac, 28, of Bradenton faces the same felony and misdemeanor charges as Wenzel. He is the son of Manatee County Commission chair Betsy Benac, while Wenzel is the son of the county planning director.

Heintz, 23, also of Palmetto, faces just the two felony charges.

It took four months for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to investigate and bring charges. The agency determined the dragging took place on June 26 in state waters off Egmont Key, which put it in Hillsborough County’s jurisdiction. The men were arrested and charged in December.

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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