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Shark-dragging video case results in three arrests

Left to right: Spencer Heintz, 23; Michael Wenzel, 21; and Robert Lee Benac III, 28; all face animal cruelty charges, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, stemming from a viral video that shows a shark being dragged behind a boat on a rope as men laugh each time its body slams the water.
Left to right: Spencer Heintz, 23; Michael Wenzel, 21; and Robert Lee Benac III, 28; all face animal cruelty charges, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, stemming from a viral video that shows a shark being dragged behind a boat on a rope as men laugh each time its body slams the water.
Published Dec. 15, 2017

In what a state wildlife commission official called "a fairly unique case," investigators on Tuesday charged three men in connection with a viral video that showed anglers dragging a shark behind a boat on a rope.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: FWC identifies boaters seen dragging shark in viral video (July 26, 2017)

In the video, the men laugh each time the shark's body slams into the water.

The video came to light in July after someone sent it to a celebrity shark hunter, Mark "The Shark" Quartiano, who said he was shocked and horrified by it, noting on social media: "FOR ONCE I MAY HAVE TO AGREE WITH @PETA."

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigators determined that the dragging took place on June 26 in state waters off Egmont Key, which put it in Hillsborough County's jurisdiction.

FWC investigators and Hillsborough prosecutors spent four months on the investigation, which culminated with Tuesday's arrests.

Among the three men charged is Michael Wenzel, 21, of Palmetto, who was captain of the boat and a friend of Alex Kompothecras, star of the MTV reality show Siesta Key.

Kompothecras' tie to the case, as well as video that appeared to show him shooting a hammerhead shark, sent the news about the video into headlines around the country and led to a swirl of controversy around the show's premiere.

Wenzel 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.

Robert Lee "Bo" Benac III, 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.

The third man charged is Spencer Heintz, 23, also of Palmetto, who faces just the two felony charges.

All three turned themselves in on Tuesday. Wenzel was booked into the Pinellas County jail at 12:30 p.m. and freed at 7 p.m. after posting $4,250 bail, according to records.

Heintz turned himself into the Hillsborough County jail that afternoon and was soon freed on $4,000 bail.

Benac was released from the Hillsborough County jail Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. after posting $4,250 bail.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Rob Klepper said it took months to bring charges in part because they had to pore over 60,000 pages of social media information that was turned over to them in response to search warrants.

"Many of the day's events were recorded via Snapchat and date/time stamped," notes Wenzel's arrest affidavit. Among the events recorded, the affidavit noted, were the men shooting a black nose shark with a spear gun and then dancing on the bow of the boat.

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 as it was pulled close to the boat, Wenzel shot it with a .38 revolver, the affidavit says.

"After the shark is shot," the affidavite notes, "all occupants are heard celebrating by laughing while Heinz yells, 'Get it again! Get it again!'"

He then shot at it three more times, and then they pulled it on board. But after that is another video showing Wenzel operating the boat while the shark is dragged across the water at a high rate of speed and the men are laughing, the affidavit says.

Three shark biologists reviewed the video and told investigators that there was a high probability that the shark was still alive while it was being dragged. Benac later claimed in Instagram posts that they dragged the shark behind the boat to kill it, but admitted their behavior was "excessive."

The affidavit said Benac also sent an Instagram message to another angler that said, "Black tip that we were dragging water backwards over its gills and one of my buddy's bet the other we couldn't get the boat on plane."

A fourth man who was aboard the boat that day, Nicholas Easterling, "provided information and cooperated with investigators and is not being charged in this case," Klepper said.

All three men will stand trial in Hillsborough County.

"The State Attorney's Office is committed to holding these men accountable for having engaged in such senseless and unjustifiable animal cruelty," said Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren in a statement.

The arrests brought praise from Gov. Rick Scott, who said in a statement late Tuesday that he was "outraged by the sickening video of a shark being horribly abused earlier this year."

Klepper said longtime investigators told him they were "not aware of any other cases like" this one. "This is a fairly unique case."

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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