(CN) – The attorneys for three Florida men accused of felony animal cruelty against a shark entered not-guilty pleas on Wednesday over an incident that sparked national outrage.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office filed charges last month against Michael Wenzel, 21, Robert Lee Benac, 28, and Spencer Heintz, 23, 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 men, out on bond, did not appear in court and let their attorneys handle the arraignment.
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.”
After the men were identified, several other questionable videos and photos appeared on social media. One photo depicts Benac and Wenzel pouring beer into a giant grouper’s mouth. A similar video shows Wenzel pouring beer in the gills of a caught hammerhead with the caption, “Who needs a beer bong?” Other photos show the men posing with pelicans and spotted eagle rays, both protected species.
“The State Attorney’s Office is committed to holding these men accountable for having engaged in such senseless and unjustifiable animal cruelty,” said Andrew Warren, state attorney for Florida’s Thirteenth Judicial Circuit, in a December statement announcing the charges. “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.”
The men are residents of Manatee County, a coastal community known for agriculture and quaint beaches. The men each face two counts of aggravated animal cruelty, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Wenzel and Benac also face a charge each of illegally taking wildlife, a misdemeanor, for using a spear gun and handgun on two sharks.
Rob Keppler, a spokesman for FWC, said the charges are “very rare.”
“In the recent past, the FWC has not charged individuals with cruelty to animals regarding fish,” he said in an e-mail.
The attorneys for the men – Stephen Crawford of Crawford Criminal Law, Paul Sisco of Jung & Sisco and Justin Petredis – did not respond to requests for comment.
Andrew Stine, a criminal defense attorney from South Florida who has defended those accused of animal cruelty, does not believe Florida statutes allow such a charge when the animal abuse is a fish.
“It isn’t punishable under the statute as the legislators didn’t intend the law to cover sharks,” he said an e-mail. “What about fish like goldfish that die in a little bowl due to no food or the cat chasing them around? Is that animal cruelty? No, the statute isn’t written for fish.”
Robin Allweiss, a defense attorney based in St. Petersburg, disagrees.
“It absolutely falls under the statutes,” she told Courthouse News. “They weren’t fishing. They were abusing and torturing.”
Last summer, Allweiss started a Facebook page calling for charges against the men. As a former prosecutor who has litigated animal cruelty cases in the past, Allweiss said she was “sickened” by the video and worried the men’s ties to county government might dissuade any law enforcement actions. Soon, she began receiving messages from others in the community with photos and videos of the men allegedly harming wildlife. She forwarded them to FWC.
“This is more than an animal abuse case,” she said. “These guys are dangerous.”
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.”
FWC regulations only permit catching sharks by hook and line in state waters and do not allow the use of firearms or explosives.
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.
There was another man on the boat that day: 24-year-old Nicholas Easterling. Authorities chose not to charge him, because he provided information and cooperated with the investigation.
Anglers and outdoors enthusiasts around the state reacted to the shark dragging video with dismay. Trip Aukeman, director of advocacy for Coastal Conservation Association Florida, a nonprofit dedicated to marine conservation, said his membership was “appalled” after seeing the recording on social media.
“Whether you were going to take that shark to eat it or let it go, there are more humane ways to harvest,” he said.
It’s a view Aukeman says the group tries to impress on youth, too. Every year, the group holds fishing days across the state for kids to teach them respect and responsibility for marine life, he said.