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Boat captain in shark-dragging case gets 10 days jail for animal cruelty

Michael Wenzel, who piloted the boat seen in a viral video that depicted a shark being shot to death, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor animal cruelty.
Michael Wenzel of Palmetto, center, pleaded guilty Thursday to charges filed in a shark-dragging case that arose from a video of the incident. Robert Lee Benac of Bradenton, right, awaits trial in the case and charges were dropped against a third man originally charged, Spencer Heintz, left, also of Palmetto
Published Feb. 28

TAMPA — He was the pilot of a boat that was recorded on video dragging a shark by a rope at high speeds through the waters of Tampa Bay as his boat mates laughed.

Another video clip showed Michael Wenzel aiming a handgun at a black tip shark and firing at its head. There was more laughter as blood poured from a hole near its gills.

"Get it again," one of the men said.

The unsettling images, circulated widely via social media, generated national headlines and riled animal rights advocates.

There was even more outrage Thursday as Wenzel pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges in exchange for 10 days in jail and a probation sentence.

"This is a privileged kid," said Marie Galbraith, a member of Florida Voices for Animals, who sat in the courtroom gallery. "This is a slap on the wrist."

Wenzel's attorney, Charles Britt, called the plea deal fair based on the evidence. He noted that the conduct at the heart of the case — the dragging of the shark behind the boat — was the basis for a criminal charge that the state agreed to drop.

The reason: A shark expert, questioned by the state, said the videos seem to indicate the shark was already dead.

"I have the distinct impression that anything other than a long-term prison sentence wouldn't make these animal activists happy," Britt said.

Background: Chark-dragging video case results in three arrests

Wenzel, 22, stood tall in a loud-blue suit and a crisp, white dress shirt as Hillsborough Circuit Judge Mark Wolfe asked a series of standard questions about whether he understood his plea. The judge noticed him smiling after a question about whether he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

"Is there something funny about this?" Wolfe asked.

"No, sir," Wenzel replied.

He left court quickly after the brief hearing.

Wenzel had been facing another felony count of animal cruelty, but it was reduced to a misdemeanor. He also pleaded guilty to a charge of using an illegal method to catch a shark. A commercial fisherman, his saltwater fishing license was revoked for five years. Along with his jail time, which he can serve on weekends, he was sentenced to 11 months of probation and 100 hours of community service. A prosecutor asked that half those hours be served at an animal shelter or animal abuse facility, but attorneys questioned whether such a center would allow him near animals.

Previous coverage: Charges dropped against one of three men accused in Tampa Bay shark-dragging case

On June 26, 2017, the trio and a fourth man boarded a 22-foot Aquasport boat at Wenzel's waterfront home in Palmetto and headed to the Gulf of Mexico.

Their activities that day were captured in a series of photos and video clips that were later uploaded to Facebook and Instagram. They caught the attention of celebrity shark hunter Mark "The Shark" Quartiano, who said he was shocked and horrified by what he'd seen.

In one image, according to prosecutors, Benac posed with a speargun while Wenzel held a blacknose shark with a spear sticking through its head. A series of short video clips also showed Wenzel firing a revolver at a shark as his boatmates laughed and fought to pull it aboard.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission determined that the shark dragging occurred near Egmont Key, which put it within the boundaries of Hillsborough County.

Robert Benac, a second man charged in the case, rejected a similar plea deal Thursday. He is set for trial later this year. Charges against the third man, Spencer Heintz, were previously dropped.

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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