TAMPA (FOX 13) - Charges have been filed against three men in connection with a viral video a shark being dragged behind a high-speed boat.
The charges resulted from a four-month investigation into the video and other "disturbing" images on social media involving "shocking disregard for Florida’s natural resources," the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) said.
Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren filed the charges this week and explained why it took several months for arrests to happen.
"Fish and Wildlife initially thought that the jurisdiction was elsewhere, so they brought the case to us a matter of weeks ago. It took a little bit of time to confirm that we did have jurisdiction and after that point we moved pretty quickly, actually, to bring charges," Warren said. "We charged the people for whom we had probable cause that they committed a crime and who we could prove those charges beyond a reasonable doubt."
Michael Wenzel, 21, of Palmetto, Robert Lee Benac, 28, of Bradenton, and Spencer Heintz, 23, of Palmetto, are all charged with aggravated animal cruelty. Wenzel and Benac are facing an additional charge for using an illegal method to catch a shark.
When the video surfaced in July, it fueled outrage throughout Tampa Bay and around the world. Animal rights activists collected 250,000 signatures and petitioned law enforcement to take action. Organizers think their work made an impact.
"I think it definitely helped. It was an assuagement to not only Florida Fish and Wildlife but also the State Attorney that the community stands behind the actions they are taking," said Carrinton Cox, with Stand Up Fight Back SRQ, an organization that helped with the protests and petitions, adding the video is still upsetting. "It's atrocious. Our community has an immense reverence for animals."
FOX 13 has tried to get responses from the men in the video but have not been successful. Two of them have family members in leadership positions in Manatee County. They didn't respond to requests for comment either.
“As we’ve said since this video and other images came to light, these actions have no place in Florida, where we treasure and conserve our natural resources for everyone,” said FWC Chairman Bo Rivard. “We appreciate the patience and support of the public as our law enforcement investigators worked... to identify a number of serious violations that will be brought to the courts for adjudication.”
FWC says the public can help by reporting suspected violations to the FWC. To make a report, call the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922) or text Tip@MyFWC.com.