“Look, ma! No decency!”
MIAMI, Florida––Long seeking social media notice by posting images of himself and friends torturing animals, Michael Robert Wenzel, 21, of Palmetto, Florida, for a few days appeared to have at last achieved the notoriety he wanted with a video posted on July 24, 2017 showing himself and pals Robert Lee “Bo” Benac, Spencer Heintz, and Nicholas Burns Easterling dragging a blacktip shark behind their boat at high speed.
The video reportedly drew more than 250,000 views within 24 hours, and had drawn millions within a few days.
But such is the fleeting nature of either fame or infamy that twice within the next week Wenzel et al were upstaged by their friend Alex Kompothecras, star of the MTV reality show Siesta Key, which debuted on July 26, 2017.
First the Siesta Key premiere party was cancelled, amid huge publicity, after photos showing Wenzel and Kompothecras together circulated via social media. The images detonated an explosion of adverse comments on the Siesta Key Facebook page and on Kompothecras’ own Facebook page. A new Facebook page entitled “Boycott Siesta Key MTV” reportedly drew over 9,500 “likes” in just a few days.
Kompothecras and other Siesta Key cast members struggled to distance themselves from the fury––especially Kompothecras.
“It would be one thing if I’d gotten caught”
“It would be one thing if it was something I’d done and I’d gotten caught but this is something I am 100% against,” Kompothecras told Patrick Gomes of People. “I don’t condone what he did and I was horrified by it. Michael has been calling me but I haven’t responded to him because I’m personally offended,” Kompothecras added. “Michael deserves what’s happening to him,” Kompothecras said, “but I had nothing to do with this.”
The other two male stars of Siesta Key, Madisson Hausburg and Brandon Gomes, also tried to dodge the flack.
“This Michael guy” just a hanger-on
“I’m getting death threats and I’ve never in my entire life been fishing,” Hausburg told People. “I understand why people are upset because I was absolutely horrified by the video. It was disgusting. It was awful. But I had absolutely nothing to do with it. No one on the show had anything to do with it. I think there was some misinformation that this Michael guy is a part of the show but he’s not,” Hausberg insisted, “and he never has been.”
Added Brandon Gomes, “I’ve known Alex for almost half my life and it’s totally unfair that he’s being slammed for something he had nothing to do with.”
Kompothecras “starred” in own shark-killing video
But though Kompothecras was not involved in the shark-dragging incident, he did appear in another video released to media on August 3, 2017 by Dolphin Freedom Foundation founder Russ Rector. Rector said he had received the video from the person who made it.
Described Miami Herald reporter Carli Teproff, “A man [later identified as Kompothecras] catches a hammerhead shark with a fishing rod. Another man lifts the shark slightly above the water’s surface and fires two shots from a handgun into the animal’s gills. Blood pours from the shark. The shooter laughs.”
A head shot would have quickly killed the shark. A gill shot, Rector told ANIMALS 24-7, only tortured the dying shark for longer.
“By law,” explained Teproff, “people cannot shoot sharks in Florida waters, but can in federal waters further from shore. It was not clear exactly where this incident took place.”
“There are images of me and I feel horrible,” Kompothecras told Patrick Gomes of People, after deleting a video from his Instagram account that was apparently the same one Rector released to media. “I am embarrassed,” Kompothecras peldged, “and it won’t happen again.”
Wrote Gomes, “There are also photos of his younger self with deer and alligators he seemingly killed while legally hunting and another of him and a friend with a fish being force-fed beer.”
“I’ve made my share of bad decisions and I feel horrible,” Kompothecras acknowledged to People, “but all I can say is that I would not make those decisions again. I was being stupid but I’ve grown from that. It’s an eye-opener for me because it’s made me think long and hard about things I’ve done and I’ve learned from that. This has all been a shocking experience.”
That did not placate many critics.
“You’re now being mentioned in the same breath as the Minnesota dentist who shot that collared lion in Africa,” wrote Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiassen before Kompothecras was identified, describing the shark hunters as “cackling sadists.”
Across the Atlantic Ocean, the hue-and-cry may have helped to influence British television entrepreneur and Arsenal football team owner Stan Kroenke, 70, to ban blood sports from his My Outdoor TV channel [MOTV], amid a wave of protest over the airing of trophy hunting videos, many of them featuring scantily clad young women posing with weapons and animals’ remains.
“A statement from MOTV confirmed that Kroenke has asked the TV channel to ‘remove all content related to those animals in light of public interest,’” wrote Will Kirby of The Express.
“Issues of stunted masculinity”
Kroenke was known to have already been rattled by threats of boycott from prominent Arsenal fans. Some of the would-be boycotters might have been influential among the young male demographic whom advertisers covet and Kroenke has engineered MOTV to reach––the same demographic, incidentally, targeted by Siesta Key, though the latter also hopes to reach young female viewers.
“Obviously the craving for attention on social media inspires lots of awful behavior. For reasons a psychiatrist can best explain, abusing animals seems a favored frolic for those grappling with issues of stunted masculinity,” wrote Hiassen.
Whatever else Kroenke had in mind, almost certainly he did not wish MOTV to become known as the television station of choice “for those grappling with issues of stunted masculinity.”
How to tell hunting/fishing from sadism?
Though neither said so, both Kroenke and Hiassen might also have been disturbed by the lack of clear distinction between what Wenzel, Benac, Heintz, Easterling and Kompthecras did and what “legitimate” trophy hunters and fishers do routinely.
Some differences might have been observed. For example, Wenzel, Benac, Heintz, and Easterling dragged the blacktip shark they killed on video at high speed rather than trolling speed, and filmed the shark’s body being knocked apart alive by the boat’s wake, instead of being cut apart, dead, for trophy body parts.
The shark’s remains were “wasted,” rather than being stuffed and mounted. And Wenzel, Benac, Heintz, Easterling, and Kompothecras clearly enjoyed their demonstrations of dominance over the suffering sharks, but the same might be said of the participants in any of dozens of shark-and-ray-hunting derbies still held up and down the Atlantic coast.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan in May 2017 signed a bill prohibiting cownose ray killing contests in Chesapeake Bay before July 1, 2019, pending completion of “a specified fishery management plan for the cownose ray species.”
Yet no legislation prohibits or even significantly hinders events such as the 31st annual Star Island Shark Tournament held in June 2017 at Montauk Point, New York; the fourth annual Block Island Giant Shark Tournament, held in Rhode Island in July 2017; and the Sharkathon, to be held off the Texas coast in mid-October 2017.
Shark-killing contests have spread north to Canada. The fifth annual “Mako My Day!” Louisbourg Shark Fishing Derby, the biggest and oldest of four such events held in Nova Scotia, is scheduled for mid-August 2017.
Most caught sharks are dragged
“Last year, 460 participating fishermen caught 49 sharks in total at Lockeport, Riverport, Louisbourg and Petit-de-Grat,” reported the CBC.
Most or all of those sharks were also dragged behind boats alive, while being “played” with the lines used to haul them alongside or aboard for dispatch.
Whatever distinctions exist between the shark derby participants and the activities of Wenzel, Benac, Heintz, and Easterling were apparently obscure to Wenzel himself.
“Mark the Shark”
The video of the blacktip shark being dragged came to the attention of Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission investigators, wrote Teproff of the Miami Herald, after Wenzel “messaged it to Mark ‘The Shark’ Quartiano on his Instagram account, after Quartiano was alerted to its existence by a concerned party.”
Quartiano, said Teproff, is “a famous sport fisherman specializing in shark fishing, based in Miami.”
Quartiano said “Wenzel messaged him the video looking to earn his praise,” Teproff wrote, but Quartiano was instead disgusted.
“I’ve never seen a more horrific video as far as an animal is concerned in fifty years of shark fishing,” Quartiano told Teproff.
“Helpless innocent animal”
“This is no way to treat a helpless, innocent animal,” Quartiano continued. “And then he called me a ‘hater’ and that’s when I posted the video to my Instagram to see what kind of feedback I would get.”
But left unexplained was the practical difference, to the shark, of being dragged either behind a boat at high speed or being “played” at the end of a line by any shark fisher, hooked through the mouth in either instance.
“Heinous” says governor
Florida governor Rick Scott, known as a friend of sport fishers and trophy hunters, had a response similar to Quartiano’s, writing to Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission chair Brian Yablonski that “The brutality and disrespect shown to this animal is sickening.
“I am sure that you share my outrage over these individuals’ heinous actions,” Scott continued, then hinted that wildlife regulations might be strengthened somehow to prevent videos of cruelty to sharks and other marine life from going viral in the future.
“I know that FWC law enforcement works to protect all of Florida’s wildlife,” Scott said. “We need to make certain they have the tools to ensure Florida has the best fisheries in the world.”
“Conducting an investigation”
Yablonski promised that the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission would work “to help deter this type of behavior.”
But as to what might be done about Wenzel, Benac, Heintz, and Easterling here and now, or about Kompothecras, Yablonski said only that “Our Division of Law Enforcement has now identified the individuals in the video[s], and are currently conducting an investigation. Since the investigation is active, we can’t confirm the identities of the individuals,” though their identities had already been widely publicized, “and it is too early to speculate as to what, if any, violations took place.”
No one charged yet
Attorney E. Jon Weiffenbach, representing Wenzel, Benac, Heintz, and Easterling, reminded media that “None of the individuals in the [original] video have been charged criminally, and no one has been arrested.”
But that may change. Saudi prince and vegan investor Khaled bin Alwaleed has reportedly posted a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Wenzel and friends. Such information might include some documentation pinpointing exactly where and when any of the possibly illegal acts occurred.
Affluent & well-connected
Yet convicting Wenzel, Benac, Heintz, Easterling, and/or Kompothecras of anything may be difficult, regardless of the evidence. This is partly because the relevant legislation was written to favor whatever might be the routine practices of hunters and fishers; partly also because, like all people who can afford to kill trophy animals, the suspects are affluent and well-connected.
Wenzel’s father is reportedly a planning manager for Manatee County, Florida. Benac’s mother Betsy Benac is a Manatee County commissioner. Heintz’s father is personal injury lawyer Steven Heintz. Kompothecras’ father is a Sarasota chiropractor.
Michael Wenzel in particular appears to have been well-defended in connection with many other incidents in recent years.
Speeding, booze, & brass knuckles
Web sites mention a speeding charge in January 2013, and a 2014 “no contest” plea to charges of illegal possession of alcohol, having a false I.D., and carrying brass knuckles.
Spotted eagle rays are a protected species in Florida, who may not be killed or kept, but Wenzel and friends in June 2014 allegedly caught a spotted eagle ray and posted a photo of the dead ray on Instagram .
Tarpon are a catch-and-release-only species in Florida waters since 2013, but in 2015 Wenzel allegedly posted three photos of himself with tarpon he had harpooned.
In 2016 Wenzel allegedly posted a photo of himself with a spotted eagle ray who had been shot through the head with an arrow, and a photo of himself shooting tarpon with a handgun.
On January 5, 2017 Wenzel allegedly posted to Snapchat a video of himself pouring beer through the gills of a dead or dying hammerhead shark.
Hiaasen mentioned a photo showing Wenzel “and some pals roughing up a white pelican. Wildlife agents investigated, but didn’t charge anyone.
In another published picture,” Hiaasen said, “Wenzel is holding what he claims is a dead dog that he intends to use for shark bait. Still another photo shows him illegally hoisting a tarpon with his fist through its gills, with the mocking caption, “#FWCsMostWanted.”