Michael Wenzel

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Michael Robert Wenzel (born June 7, 1996) is a resident of Palmetto, Florida. In July, 2017 Michael Wenzel along with friends Robert Lee "Bo" Benac, Spencer Heintz, and Nicholas Burns Easterling became infamous after dragging a shark behind a boat at high speed. In December 2017 Wenzel, Benac, and Heintz were arrested and charged with felony aggravated animal cruelty. [67] [66] In May 2018 all charges were dropped against Heintz. [68]

Personal Life

Michael is a supporter of the Republican Party (US). [20] His father Robert Wenzel is a planning manager for Manatee County, Florida. His brother is Ian Kelly Jones Wenzel. [2] [17]

Criminal Record

Micheal Wenzel and Alex Kompo shooting a hammerhead shark. [61]

In 2014, Michael Wenzel was charged with three misdemeanors and pleaded no contest, according to Manatee County Courthouse documents. Adjudication was withheld for the charges which in Florida means that the judge orders probation but does not formally convict the defendant of a criminal offense. [56] Charges included possessing alcohol under the age of 21; having a false I.D.; and carrying a concealed weapon (brass knuckles). [55]

In January, 2013 Michael Wenzel was charged with unlawful speed, according to Manatee County Courthouse records. [57]

Animal Cruelty Incidents

Shark Dragging Video Incident

On July 24, 2017 a video of Michael and three other young men, Robert Lee "Bo" Benac, Spencer Heintz, and Nicholas Burns Easterling dragging a shark behind their speed boat at high speed went viral receiving over 250,000 views in the 24 hours. [12] [11] [6] [4]

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Photos of the four culprits, Michael Wenzel, Robert Lee "Bo" Benac, Spencer Heintz, and Nicholas Burns Easterling

The 10-second video, shows the shark flailing in boat's wake as it's tethered to the stern of the speeding watercraft. [12] [11] [6] [4]

Michael was the captain of the boat while Bo filmed the video. Bo's mother Betsy Benac is the Commissioner of Manatee County, Florida. Spencer's father is prominent lawyer, Steven Heintz. [12] [11] [6] [4]

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Photo Michael sent to Mark "The Shark" Quartianoa of the shark's carcass in the aftermath of the cruel video

Michael sent the video to Mark "The Shark" Quartianoa a famous sport fisherman specializing in shark fishing based in Miami, Florida. He also sent a picture of the aftermath of the abuse that shows the shark torn to pieces. [24] [25]

Quartiano says Wenzel messaged him the video looking to earn his praise, however he was disgusted by the video. [23]

"I've never seen a more horrific video as far as an animal is concerned in fifty years of shark fishing," said Mark "The Shark" Quartiano. [23]

"This is no way to treat a helpless, innocent animal," said Quartiano. "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." [23]

Hammerhead Shark Abuse Video Incident

Snapchat video of Wenzel pouring beer into the gills of a Hammerhead Shark and using it as a beer bong

In January, 2017 Michael Wenzel caught a hammerhead shark, poured beer in its gills. The video shows the shark being held as Wenzel pours beer through the sharks gills and another man laying underneath drinking the beer. It’s unclear if the shark is dead or alive in the video. But, the hammerhead appears to be dead or dying. [34]

He posted the video on Snapchat with the caption "Who needs a beer bong" and on January 5, 2017 it was shared and promoted by the Facebook page Doyouevenfishbro. [35] The Facebook page Support No Kill Manatee County shared the video on July 27, 2017 to expose Michael's cruelty to the shark. [36]

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Photo of Wenzel holding a Spotted eagle ray he illegally killed which is a protected species

Other Offences

Michael Wenzel has violated multiple Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) hunting and fishing laws. The Facebook page Save the tarpon publicly exposed these crimes as early as May, 2015. [33] [32]

In 2016, Michael posted a photo of himself with a he caught and killed a spotted eagle ray with an arrow through its head. He captioned the photo #PrimeMakoBait and planned to use the dead ray as bait for mako sharks. In June, 2014 Michael caught a spotted eagle ray with friends and posted a photo of the dead ray on Instagram. Spotted eagle rays are a protected species and in the state of Florida and it is unlawful to harvest, possess, land, purchase, sell, or exchange this protected species. [27] [33]

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Instagram photo of Michael and friends with a spotted eagle ray they caught which is a protected species that is illegal to harvest

On July 28, 2016 Michael posted a photo of himself shooting tarpon with a handgun. In May, 2015 Michael caught and killed tarpon with harpoons on multiple occasions and posted three photos of himself with the dead fishes on Instagram. In Florida, tarpon are a catch-and-release-only species and over 40 inches must remain in the water. He also tagged one of the posts #FWCsMostWanted. [28] [29] [30] [31] [32]

In June, 2014 Michael caught a spotted eagle ray with friends and posted a photo of the dead ray on Instagram. In the state of Florida it is unlawful to harvest, possess, land, purchase, sell, or exchange this protected species. [27] [33]

Michael Wenzel posted a photo of himself pouring beer into the mouth of an Atlantic goliath grouper also known as a jewfish while Bo Benac held the fish. [39] Atlantic goliath grouper are a protected species. [43]

A video also surfaced of Alex Kompo the star of MTV's Siesta Key (TV series) shooting an endangered hammerhead shark illegally with Michael Wenzel. [12] [61]

2015 Animal Cruelty Investigation

In 2015, Michael was investigated by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and state officials after posting a series of disturbing pictures that showed posing with dead pelicans and a gull. Pelicans and gulls are a protected species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and are illegal to kill. In January, 2016 the USFWS closed the investigation against [40] [8] [65]

2017 Animal Cruelty Investigation

On July 24, 2017 Mark "The Shark" Quartiano notified the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) investigators, about the video who asked him to leave the post online, hoping to generate tips. The video was shared and commenters on social media were able to identify the four men in the video. [25]

Save the Tarpon, an Englewood-based nonprofit, also notified state officials after activist Courtney Martin said she received an anonymous tip. Martin, a firefighter, said the tipster sent her a series of images, some of which she shared on the group’s Facebook page. [40]

“They’ve been well-known animal abusers for a long time. A ton of animal groups, from no-kill shelters to Save the Tarpon have been after them for years,” she said. “Someone needs to dig into it, why they keep getting away with it, and why are their parents defending them? If I did something like this, my parents would never talk to me again.”

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Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed and World Animal News are offering a $10,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of Michael his friends behind the animal cruelty incidents

FWC spokesman Rob Klepper says the agency has received numerous photos and videos this week of alleged wildlife abuse, including a video of men pouring beer into a hammerhead shark’s mouth and gills. The agency’s law enforcement division is investigating all complaints, but no charges have been announced. [23]

Attorney E. Jon Weiffenbach, who is representing the four men said, "None of the individuals in the video have been charged criminally and no one has been arrested." [23]

Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed, a vegan and animal rights activist from Saudi Arabia and the World Animal News have offered a $10,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of Michael Wenzel and his friends. [49] [48] [50]

WTF Florida started a Change.org petition with over 3,000 signatures to sentence Michael and his friends to community service and jail for the shark cruelty incident. [38]

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Letter Florida Governor sent to the FWC regarding the shark cruelty incidents

Response by Florida Governor Rick Scott

On July 28, 2017, Governor Rick Scott sent a letter to FWC Chairman Brian Yablonski regarding the incident, that said in part [44]:

“I encourage FWC to review Florida’s fishing regulations and state statutes to ensure such inhumane acts are strictly prohibited. I know that FWC law enforcement works to protect all of Florida’s wildlife and we need to make certain they have the tools to ensure Florida has the best fisheries in the world.” [46]

Yablonski sent this response to Scott [44]:

"I, my fellow Commissioners, and the men and women of the FWC, who are dedicated to conserving Florida’s precious natural resources for future generations, could not agree more with Governor Scott’s powerful words. Each and every member of our agency is disgusted by the behavior shown in the video. FWC Division of Law Enforcement investigators are working diligently to come to a lawful resolution in this case. Florida is a sportsman’s destination and there is no place in Florida for these kinds of callous acts. We are eager to move forward with the Governor's suggestion to review and strengthen regulations as necessary to help deter this type of behavior in the future. These individuals do not represent the sentiments and conscientious actions of millions of conservation-minded anglers around the world. "

October, 2017 Update from the FWC

In October, 2017 Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Executive Director Nick Wiley said that the commission is almost finished their investigative report which they will submit to prosecutors at the Florida Attorney General ’s Office. [63] In an October 31, 2017 article by the Anna Marie Island Sun Rob Klepper, the FWC's public information coordinator, said that agency were also working with Hillsborough County, FL and Manatee County, Florida prosecutors. [64]

“We’re finishing up the investigation and meeting with the State Attorney’s Office,” FWC executive director Nick Wiley said. “We’re close to wrapping it up.” [63]

On October 11, 2017 the Florida Attorney General ’s Office said they are waiting for the investigation report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission before deciding on possible criminal charges in the case in a statement emailed to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. [63]

“It’s still open and pending and still under investigation,” said Assistant State Attorney and felony division chief Cynthia Evers. “As far as I know, they are still accumulating evidence.” Evers said the case is not dependent on any one piece of evidence. She reiterated that the State Attorney’s Office will make a decision about criminal charges after the report is submitted. [63]

Prosecutors released a statement thanking those individuals who have expressed “concern” over the videos and images seen over social media. They wrote, “We share your concern, and we are committed to conserving Florida’s natural resources.” Prosecutors and FWC are working toward a “swift” and “lawful resolution” to the case. [63]

Defense

Jon Weiffenbach Jr. of Weiffenbach & Reinhart, a law firm in Bradenton, Florida is representing Michael Wenzel, Robert Lee "Bo" Benac, Spencer Heintz, and Nicholas Burns Easterling. [64]

In an August email, he told the Anna Marie Island Sun that the men have been cooperating with the shark drag investigation and wrote:

“The shark depicted in the video was dead prior to being pulled behind the boat. The purpose of tail wrapping the shark and pulling it behind the boat initially was to bleed it out, a common practice to improve the quality of the meat before the shark is cleaned/fileted for consumption. The shark was taken back to the dock where it was cleaned and eaten. The acceleration of the boat while the shark was being pulled was a lapse in judgment but did not harm the animal or violate any laws.” [64]

Response

When asked about the claims of the defense, Capt. David White of Anna Maria Charters said in an Oct. 26 email that while bleeding fish is “relatively common,” they are typically hung by the tail off the side for a few minutes, not pulled or dragged at high speed. He estimated the shark draggers’ boat in the video traveling “at least 35 mph.” [64]

About the consumption, he said, “Any angler that fishes locally knows that shark meat is in no way comparable to the other species we have here, ie. grouper, snapper (fish), redfish and snook.” And referring to the video, White added, “As you can see, they are laughing.” [64]

“They did this for no other purpose than a strange amusement,” which gives captains and fishers who respect waterways and the ecosystem “a bad name.” [64]

Staci-lee Sherwood, a former FWC sea turtle permit worker, disputes Weiffenbach’s claim of an already-dead shark, pointing out Burns’ statement when the boat was pulling it as being “almost dead.” [64]

Sherwood hopes the Hillsborough prosecutor being added to the investigation will mean more charges. However, she said, “it might be a ruse to keep pushing the ball down the road so no one does anything, based on jurisdiction.” [64]

Animal Cruelty Charges

On Tuesday December 12, 2017, Michael, Wenzel, Robert Lee Benac, and Spencer Heintz were all charged with felony animal cruelty. [67] In addition to the felony charges, Wenzel and Benac face misdemeanor charges of illegal method of take- shark, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a fine of up to $500. [66]

On Tuesday, May 1, 2018 a Hillsborough County, Florida judge dropped both of the aggravated animal cruelty charges against Heintz. According to the judge, the state dropped the charges because no evidence showed that Heintz, broke the law and because he agreed to testify as a witness. [68]

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