TAMPA — The three Florida men seen laughing in a viral video last July as they dragged a defenseless shark behind a high-speed boat were charged with felony animal cruelty yesterday.
The suspects, Michael Wenzel, 21, Robert Lee Benac, 28, and Spencer Heintz, 23, have been charged with two felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty and one misdemeanor count of illegal method of take each, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office.
The charges came after a four-month investigation into the video and “other disturbing images on social media involving shocking disregard for Florida’s natural resources,” the Conservation Commission said yesterday.
The investigation revealed that the suspects first shot the shark, then dragged it around at high speeds, resulting in its death.
See the disturbing video below.
“As we’ve said since this video and other images came to light, these actions have no place in Florida, where we treasure and conserve our natural resources for everyone,” Commission Chairman Bo Rivard said yesterday. “We appreciate the patience and support of the public as our law enforcement investigators worked with the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office to identify a number of serious violations that will be brought to the courts for adjudication. 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.”
According to Robert Klepper, public information coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Division of Law Enforcement, the suspects could face a sentence of up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
“The State Attorney’s Office is committed to holding these men accountable for having engaged in such senseless and unjustifiable animal cruelty. We thank the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for their work in investigating these crimes, and we stand with them, along with Florida’s fishing and hunting communities, and all those who cherish our precious natural resources, in condemning the torture of our marine wildlife,” State Attorney Andrew H. Warren added.
After the charges were made public, Gov. Rick Scott stated, “I was outraged by the sickening video of a shark being horribly abused earlier this year. Florida has no tolerance for this mistreatment, and I am proud of the hard work of FWC law enforcement during this investigation to hold these individuals accountable for their horrific actions.”
The viral video was made public by Miami charter fisherman Mark Quartiano, known “Mark the Shark,” after he received it from two anonymous social media users. He said he uploaded it so they could be identified and arrested.
“I was horrified,” Quartiano told CNN. “I’ve been shark fishing for 50 years, and I’ve never seen a disrespect for an animal my entire career that was that evil.”