If viral videos had a smell, this one would’ve reeked like an out-of-control frat party at 3 a.m. Millions of Americans watched it. Most wanted to retch.
Now the boaters who made the video are facing felony charges and prison time in an animal-cruelty case that is being called an outlier even among officials and activists who regularly see serious abuse cases. “It is unusual,” Don Anthony, communications director for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, says about the extent of the charges. “It was a surprising move that these actions were taken so seriously.”
The video was shot in June 2017 and went viral in July. It showed a group of men dragging a shark by its tail behind a powerboat at a high rate of speed off Florida. The men allegedly were fishermen, but that’s not how news reporters and social-media commenters described them everywhere from CBS This Morning to the New York Post. “Horrifying,” “abuse” and “torture” were some of the more family-friendly words used to explain what the video showed.
Many people characterized the men — smiling and laughing as the shark twisted, writhed and died behind the boat — with expletives so outrage-laced that they might be unfit for a Quentin Tarantino film. A quarter-million people signed a petition calling what they saw in the video “sociopathic.”
A four-month investigation followed the public outcry. According to the Tampa Bay Times, investigators reviewed more than 60,000 pages of information from social media, including Snapchat. Then the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, in conjunction with the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office, brought charges against three of the four men in the video.
Floridians Michael Wenzel, 21, Robert Lee Benac, 28, and Spencer Heintz, 23, each were charged in December with two counts of aggravated animal cruelty. Wenzel and Benac also face one count each of illegal method of take.
The misdemeanor illegal method of take charges that Wenzel and Benac face come with a maximum sentence of 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. The aggravated animal cruelty counts are third-degree felonies, with each of the men facing a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The felony charge is on par, according to Florida law, with possession of cocaine or oxycodone, or aggravated assault of a human being.
That the men now face felony convictions and prison time in such a public way is significant ahead of their cases going before the court, Anthony says. “Hopefully, with all the public outcry, they won’t let these three individuals skate by,” he says. “We’d like to see prosecution to the fullest extent of law.”
According to news reports, the men had gone fishing out of Palmetto on June 26 with a spear gun and a .38-caliber revolver. Benac speared a blacknose shark — a crime under Florida law — off Egmont Key at the mouth of Tampa Bay. Later, Benac caught the 6-foot blacktip that’s shown in the video. Wenzel shot it in the head, and the shark tried to get away but was tangled. Wenzel shot it three more times, and it was somehow still alive by the time the men tied its tail. They hit the throttles to see if they could get the boat on plane while dragging the dying shark astern.
Andrew H. Warren, state attorney for the 13th Circuit, did not mince words when announcing the charges this past December. He condemned the behavior in the video as the “torture of our marine wildlife.”
“The State Attorney’s Office is committed to holding these men accountable for having engaged in such senseless and unjustifiable animal cruelty,” he states in a press release.
Florida officials say they had rarely, if ever, seen this manner of cruelty to a marine animal. The case even drew the attention of Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who called it “sickening” on Twitter.
The boaters’ behavior is perhaps even more shocking given that, according to the Bradenton Herald, Wenzel is a licensed commercial fisherman. His criminal record reportedly includes underage drinking, carrying a concealed weapon and possessing false identification. Benac, whose mother is a Manatee County commissioner in Florida, has a recreational saltwater fishing license, along with a criminal record for underage drinking and setting a fire at a nature reserve, the Herald reported; Heintz has a lifetime recreational fishing license and a record that includes minor boating infractions.
And they’re not the only people who, in recent years, have been accused of torturing sharks for fun. In 2014, two Fort Lauderdale men photographed themselves dragging ashore an endangered hammerhead shark. In February 2016, according to The Miami Herald, a man in Palm Beach pulled a thrashing shark ashore so he could pose for photos with it. In summer 2017, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission was trying to figure out who the people were in a video that showed beer being poured into a shark’s gills as it struggled to breathe.
Anthony says the felony charges brought in the shark-dragging case should serve as more than a deterrent to anyone thinking about harming one of the animals in the future. The public outcry, he says, is a hopeful sign for all sharks in the future.
“This got so much publicity, and so many people were disgusted by it — it’s good news that people are looking at sharks not just as monsters or predators,” he says. “They realize that sharks are something that needs to be protected.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue.