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

Criminal charges have been dropped against Spencer Heintz, 23, of Palmetto, left, in connection with a shark-dragging incident that went viral after video was posted online. The case will proceed against Michael Wenzel, 21, of Palmetto, center, and Robert Lee Benac, 28, of Bradenton. [Times files]
Published May 1, 2018

TAMPA — Prosecutors on Tuesday announced they are dropping charges against one of three defendants in a shark-dragging case that caused an uproar when video of the incident went viral.

After reviewing case law and evidence presented by a defense attorney, the state decided to drop two counts of aggravated cruelty to animals filed against 23-year-old Spencer Heintz, one of three suspects captured in a video that first came to light last summer.

Assistant State Attorney Andrew Hubbard announced the decision in court Tuesday during a hearing before Hillsborough Circuit Judge Mark Wolfe. Hubbard did not elaborate.

The case will proceed against co-defendants Michael Wenzel and Robert Lee "Bo" Benac III, Hubbard said. Each is charged with two felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty and a misdemeanor count of using an illegal method to catch a shark. Wolfe set a status hearing for June 13 for both men.

"It was good day for him but a good day for justice also," Heintz's attorney Paul Sisco said after the hearing. "The correct decision was made."

Paul Sisco, attorney for Heintz, talks about decision to drop charges against his client. pic.twitter.com/oxZ53tUiXa

Sisco noted that there were a total of four men in the boat at the time of the dragging.

"It's clear there were different roles of the four men that were in the boat," he said. "There was nothing Mr. Heintz did at all that contributed in any way to any of the activities that were charged in the case, nothing that constituted a crime."

Sisco said Heintz could be called as a witness in the case and will cooperate if that happens.

"It's a difficult case, in some ways, for the state because you have a boat in open water with four individuals on it and in large part you're dependent on the testimony of those four folks on the boat," Sisco said. "Mr. Heintz ... has a good recollection of exactly what took place on the boat and intends to help tell the truth fully."

The dragging video first surfaced in July after it was sent to a celebrity shark hunter. The shark hunter said on sicla media even he had issues with how the animal was shown, repeatedly smacking against the water at the end of a line as the men in the video laughed.

Video taken later in the day showed Benac, 28, catching a black tip shark with a hook and line — the only legal way to catch a shark in Florida — then Wenzel shooting it with a .38-caliber revolver as it was pulled close to the boat, court records say.

Wenzel, 21, of Palmetto, was piloting the boat. Benac is the son of Manatee County Commission chair Betsy Benac and Wenzel is the son of the Manatee County planning director.

The case is expected to hinge on whether the shark was alive or dead at the time it was being dragged and experts are being called to render an opinion on that, Sisco said.

"I can tell you that the opinion of Mr. Heintz is that that shark was deceased at the time it was being dragged," he said.

The felony counts are each punishable by up to five years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine although any punishment would likely fall short of the maximum.

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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