Prosecution protects the image of $7.6 billion recreational fishing industry
TAMPA, Florida––The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office on December 12, 2017 announced that two third degree felony counts each of aggravated animal cruelty have been filed against three men who participated in dragging a live blacktip shark behind a speeding yacht, as shown in two videos posted to social media on July 24, 2017.
Facing the felony charges are Michael Wenzel, 21, and Spencer Heintz, 23, of Palmetto, Florida, and Robert Lee Benac, 28, of Bradenton, Florida.
Wenzel and Benac were additionally charged with illegally taking a shark, a misdemeanor.
Five years in prison, $10,000 fine
The felony charges each carry a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison, plus a fine of up to $10,000. The misdemeanor counts each carry a maximum penalty of up to 60 days in jail plus a fine of up to $500.
Andrew H. Warren, State Attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit, told media that his office is “committed to holding these men accountable.”
“During both videos, all occupants can be seen and heard laughing while the shark is being dragged across the top of the water at high speed,” the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission recounted. “At the end of [the] recordings, Wenzel states, ‘I think it’s dead.’”
“Purposeful & tragic”
Reported David Fleshler of the Florida Sun Sentinel, “The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission investigation took four months and involved reviews of social media accounts, numerous interviews and consultation with shark experts. The shark experts said it was likely the shark was alive through most of its ordeal.”
The shark was “flipping and tossing around,” Florida Aquarium associate curator Eric Hovland told Fox News. “It looks like it was even roped by the tail. I mean, this just wasn’t hooked on a line and accidentally dragged. This was purposeful and tragic.”
Pressure to prosecute the case rose rapidly after the videos of the shark being dragged reportedly drew more than 250,000 views within 24 hours, and had drawn millions within a few days.
Wenzel allegedly sought praise
The videos came to the attention of Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission investigators, Miami Herald reporter Carli Teproff wrote, after Wenzel “messaged [one of them] 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.
From there, politicians and pundits competed for days with statements denouncing the shark dragging. Many were also quick to laud the criminal charges.
“These actions have no place in Florida”
Said Florida governor Rick Scott in a prepared statement after the criminal charges were filed, “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 law enforcement during this investigation to hold these individuals accountable for their horrific actions.”
Agreed Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission chair Bo Rivard in a prepared statement, “These actions have no place in Florida, where we treasure and conserve our natural resources. It is our hope,” Rivard said, “that these charges will send a clear message to others that this kind of behavior involving our fish and wildlife will not be tolerated.”
Florida sells 1.7 million licenses per year to kill sharks
But left unexplained, in a state that sells 1.7 million saltwater angling licenses per year and boasts that saltwater recreational fishing is a $7.6 billion a year industry, is the practical difference to either a shark or any other “game fish” between being dragged behind a boat at high speed or being “played” at the end of a line by any legal fisher aboard a boat moving at trolling speed.
Whether roped by the tail or hooked through the mouth, the fish in either instance swims at top speed, desperately lunging to try to escape.
The Siesta Key connection
The MTV reality show Siesta Key, which debuted on July 26, 2017, became involved in the controversy after photos surfaced showing Wenzel, now criminally charged, with Siesta Key star Alex Kompothecras. Posted to social media, the photos 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.
The Siesta Key premiere party was cancelled. Kompothecras in media statements distanced himself from Wenzel, the other suspects, and their actions.
“It won’t happen again”
But though Kompothecras was not involved in the shark-dragging incident, he appeared in another video also allegedly showing sadistic behavior toward a shark, 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.
“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 pledged, “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.”
Eight more episodes
“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.”
Kompothecras reportedly suffered a broken jaw at about 12:45 a.m. on September 14, 2017 in an altercation occurring shortly after he was escorted from MacDinton’s, a Tampa bar, by security personnel. The incident followed a shouting match, according to a police report, but there was no indication as to what it was about.
Despite the notoriety associated with the shark-dragging incident and the incident outside MacDinton’s, MTV on October 2, 2017 ordered eight more episodes of Siesta Key, to follow the original 10 episodes.