The state investigation into the alleged abuse of marine life off Manatee County in July -- most prominently, a live shark dragged to death behind a speedboat -- was still incomplete Monday afternoon.
A month after the incident was recorded and posted on social media by one of the fishermen, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) still has nothing new to say.
"The investigation is open and active and moving forward," FWC spokesman Robert Klepper told Sunshine State News. But he also said he is "unable to provide a timeline" for completion.
This "nothing new here" report comes on the same day organizers of a Change.org petition drive, led by petition starter Dan Dodsworth, delivered the document with 250,000 signatures to the Manatee County Building Department in Bradenton.
It was specifically addressed to Klepper; Ed Brodsky, state attorney for the 12th Judicial Circuit; the Florida Senate; Florida House; and Gov. Rick Scott.
The petition singles out Michael Robert Wenzel, 21, of Palmetto, "and his accomplices in this video." Wenzel was identified as one of the fishermen dragging the shark and the one of four who posted the video on Facebook. The petition calls for him and his friends on the boat to serve 1,000 community-service hours under the FWC's supervision.
The petition further states --
"This act of violence is criminal per the Florida Statute Chapter 828. We expect charges to be pressed as per law. The public is growing more concerned as no charges have been pressed yet.
"828.12 section 2 states that a person who intentionally commits an act to any animal which results in the cruel death, or excessive or repeated infliction of unnecessary pain or suffering, or causes the same to be done, is guilty of a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in S.775.082 or by a fine of not more than $10,000, or both.
S.775.082 covers a wide variety of punishments, including imprisonment."
It's difficult to understand what's taking the one agency in state government used to dealing with wildlife abuse so long to complete this investigation. It includes the luxury of video evidence of the shark dragging. Of photographs of other creatures on display, from a goliath grouper to a pelican -- posted on social media. And, if these knuckle-draggers have been engaging in this kind of behavior for some time -- as some who know them have reported on social media -- surely there are easily locatable witnesses for FWC to tap.
Besides Wenzel, Facebook friends identified another fisherman shown in the video as Robert Lee ‘Bo’ Benac.
These are well-connected young men. Wenzel’s father is Robert Wenzel, Manatee County Planning Section manager; Benac’s mother is Betsy Benac, chairwoman of the Manatee County Commission. Neither parent returned my phone call in two attempts.
"These guys have pull," said Manatee resident David Bell. "It will be interesting to see if their mommies and daddies can pull strings and get them off."
By their strong show of disgust over the behavior of Wenzel and friends, Floridians have shown they want their wildlife treated with respect and humanity. That's certainly a big positive.
And the video caught the attention of Gov. Rick Scott -- even before he knew about the petition. The governor issued a letter July 31 to FWC Chairman Brian Yablonski condemning the actions in the video and urging that regulations and statutes be reviewed "to ensure such inhumane acts are strictly prohibited."
While I don't believe the FWC is dragging its feet, waiting for this incident to cool down and go away quietly, I do think the agency already knows it isn't going to find for a penalty as stern and deserving as the majority of Floridians want and expect.
But I'm still hopeful the Legislature can increase specificity and press up the penalties in the law. Let's see what happens next session.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith