TAMPA, Fla. (CN) – A state attorney dropped felony animal cruelty charges Tuesday against a Florida man for a shark-dragging incident for which two other men will be prosecuted.
Citing a lack of evidence, Assistant State Attorney Aaron Hubbard dropped the two charges of aggravated animal cruelty against 23-year-old Spencer Heintz during a hearing in Hillsborough County Court.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office filed charges in December against Heintz, Michael Wenzel, 21, and Robert Lee Benac, 28, in connection to a viral video showing the men dragging a blacktip shark behind a speeding boat while pointing and laughing.
“Look, it’s already almost dead,” one of the men says in the recording as the shark bounces in the boat’s wake.
The commission began investigating the incident after the anglers sent the video to prominent sport fisherman Mark “The Shark” Quartiano, who posted it to his Instagram account, with the tags #sowrong and #notcool.
The video went viral and prompted a hunt of its own with concerned citizens and animal activists attempting to identify the men. The recording grabbed the attention of Gov. Rick Scott, who wrote a letter to the agency, asking it to review regulations to “ensure such inhumane acts are strictly prohibited.”
All three men entered not-guilty pleas at their January arraignment.
Heintz’s attorney, Paul Sisco, told reporters his client will testify as a witness if requested, according to video posted by WTSP 10 News.
“It’s clear there were different roles among the four men that were in the boat,” Sisco 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.”
“Clearly there are things about the dragging that are objectionable and distasteful,” he added. “What I can tell you is that Mr. Heintz had nothing to do with the dragging of that shark.”
Another man on the boat that day, 24-year-old Nicholas Easterling, did not face charges, because he provided information and cooperated with the investigation.
FWC obtained several videos, photographs and text conversations and pieced together the events leading up to the shark dragging. According to the arrest affidavit, Benac caught the shark with hook and line, which is legal, pulled it to the boat and Wenzel shot it near the gills with a revolver, which is not legal.
Wenzel shot the shark three more times, the affidavit states, before bringing it on board, tying a rope to its tail and dragging it behind the boat at high speed. Authorities say at the end of another, longer recording of the incident Wenzel can be heard saying, “I think it’s dead.”
Scientists with FWC, Mote Marine Research and Florida Atlantic University viewed the recording and determined the shark’s movements indicated it was alive while dragged, the affidavit states. Considering the anglers’ long history with fishing, including in tournaments and commercially, the FWC concluded the men unnecessarily and cruelly dragged the shark.
Wenzel and Benac also face a charge each of illegally taking wildlife, a misdemeanor, for using a spear gun and handgun on two other sharks.
FWC regulations only permit catching sharks by hook and line in state waters and do not allow the use of firearms or explosives.
The case against Wenzel and Benac continues and the state attorney’s office planned depositions today of the men and shark researchers from Florida Atlantic University and Mote Marine Lab. The next hearing for Wenzel and Benac is in June.