Three men who laughed as they dragged a shark behind a motorboat could go to prison
Three Florida men were arrested Tuesday and accused of making Snapchat videos in which a shark is shot with a revolver, then tied to the back of a motorboat and dragged through the waves to its death.
A 10-second clip of the shark's dragging revolted hundreds of thousands of people when it emerged in the summer, and exposed an online subculture in which fishermen brutalize and degrade their catches for sport.
And yet the clip - as described by Florida Fish and Wildlife investigators in an arrest affidavit - showed only a small part of the carnage that took place on a motorboat in the Gulf of Mexico on that summer afternoon.
Michael Wenzel, 21, and three friends set off from his waterfront home in Palmetto on June 26. They were all avid fishermen, according to the arrest affidavit, and had brought with them on that expedition a spear gun, a .38-caliber revolver, and of course their cameras.
They boated out to state waters off Egmont Key, where 28-year-old Robert Lee Benac III speared a blacknose shark, according to the affidavit.
To celebrate, Benac danced on the bow of the boat with 23-year-old Spencer Heintz and Nicholas Easterling while Wenzel recorded.
The blacknose had been speared clean through, which itself was a crime under Florida law. But less than two hours later, another shark would endure far worse.
Around 5 p.m., the affidavit states, Benac hooked a 6-foot-long blacktip.
When the shark had been pulled in close enough to the boat, investigators wrote, Wenzel took out the .38 and shot it on the side of the head.
As the water reddened, the shark swerved and tried to get away from the men. But it was caught on the line, and could only make it from one side of the boat to the other.
"Get it again! Get it again!" Heintz yelled, and all the men laughed, according to the affidavit.
Wenzel shot at the shark three more times, state investigators wrote, prompting cheers from the men. Somehow, it was still alive by the time they draped it over the edge of the boat and tied a line around its tail.
Three biologists who studied the men's next video told investigators the animal was probably still alive when they threw the bleeding shark back in the water, cranked the boat engine and dragged it behind them like a toy on a string.
Wenzel drove the boat fast, according to the affidavit, and two of his friends recorded the moment for posterity. In a video that spread online months ago and led to the investigation, the men laugh and point as the shark skips off the water's surface, twists in the air and smacks back down, again and again.
This goes on for half a minute, according to the affidavit, until Wenzel finally says: "I think it's dead." In an aftermath photo published by the Miami Herald, a man holds up a mangled shark with its tail stripped of flesh like a soup bone.
Wenzel, Heintz and Benac all turned themselves in on Tuesday to face animal cruelty charges, according to the Tampa Bay Times. They have since gone free on bail, and could not be reached by The Washington Post.
The fourth man in the boat, Easterling, cooperated with investigators and was not charged.
The months-long investigation only came about because one of the men shared video of the dragging with a celebrity shark hunter, apparently thinking he would be impressed.
"They said, 'Oh, this is pretty cool, look what we did to the shark,' " Mark Quartiano told the Miami CBS affiliate. "And I go, 'Are you kidding me man?' " He reposted the video on his Instagram page with the message: "WHO DOES THIS S-?"
The video was so appalling that a quarter-million people signed a petition demanding the men be imprisoned, and Gov. Rick Scott wrote that "the brutality and disrespect shown to this animal is sickening."
And yet degrading ocean wildlife on camera is something of an online fad. It's called "fish porn," according to the Miami Herald.
Federal and state authorities previously investigated Wenzel in 2015 after he posted photos of himself manhandling protected seabirds, according to the Herald. But they couldn't prove when the photos were taken, and dropped the case.
Wenzel once also took a bathroom selfie with dangling egret, the paper reported, and shared it on a Facebook page called Doyouevenfishbro, which also features videos of men drinking alcohol out of fish.
But beer-bonging a dead fish isn't a crime. The shark dragging is being prosecuted as felony animal cruelty, with possible prison time, because authorities believe it was alive at the time.
While the three biologists who watched the video couldn't be absolutely certain, they all told investigators that the shark appeared to be struggling as it whipped across the water.
And when Benac shared the video with the celebrity shark hunter, state investigators wrote, he explained that they were trying to flood its gills by dragging it backward through the water.
"You had no right to drag it alive," an Instagram commenter wrote to Benac after seeing the video, according to the affidavit.
"I had every right," he allegedly replied.