OKLAHOMA CITY - A federal grand jury indicted a former Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate, a 2016 presidential hopeful and previous owner of a central Oklahoma exotic animal park with allegedly trying to murder a Florida woman.
Joseph Maldonado-Passage, 55, better known as "Joe Exotic" and former owner of the the Greater Wynnewood Animal Park in Garvin County, was indicted by an Oklahoma federal grand jury Wednesday with two counts of murder-for-hire. The charges stem from an investigation that dates back to at least December 2017, according to the federal indictment.
Maldonado-Passage is accused of giving a person $3,000 to travel from Oklahoma to Florida to carry out the murder of a Florida woman and "allegedly agreed to pay thousands more after the deed," said the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Oklahoma.
He's also accused of asking a different person to find a hit man to commit the murder, in exchange for cash. That person put Maldonado-Passage in contact with an undercover FBI agent.
Court documents do not name the target of the plot, identifying her only as "Jane Doe." However Carole Baskin of Tampa, Florida, as well as others familiar with the case, said she was the intended target.
"He's been threatening me for years," said Baskin when reached by phone Friday evening. "So, there’s no doubt in anybody's mind who knows him he intended to kill me."
Baskin, the owner of Big Cat Rescue, sued Maldonado-Passage (then known as Joseph Schreibvogel) in 2011 for trademark infringement. A judge ruled in Baskin's favor and ordered Schreibvogel to pay Big Cat Rescue nearly $1 million.
"I think that's part of it, but I think the bigger issue is that we are the most outspoken sanctuary against the abuse of tigers and their cubs being used as pay-to-play props and he was, in our opinion, one of the worst perpetrators of that industry," Baskin said, adding that she's been in contact with federal authorities for some time. "So as we became more effective in raising awareness about all of cruelty involved in that, that's inherent, I think he retaliated by trying to bully me into being quiet."
Maldonado-Passage was arrested by U.S. Marshals in Gulf Breeze, Florida Friday and appeared before a magistrate judge who appointed a public defender. Maldonado-Passage is being held without bond, awaiting extradition back to Oklahoma. A court date in Oklahoma has not yet been set. If convicted, he could be imprisoned for up to ten years on each count be fined half-a-million dollars.
Known for his curse-filled YouTube videos, the blond-haired, tattooed zookeeper allegedly began posting threats against the Florida woman on Facebook and YouTube in February 2014.
The first count alleges he asked another person in November 2017, named in court documents as "Individual 1," about traveling to Florida to murder the woman in exchange for money. Maldonado-Passage had this person travel to Dallas that month to get a fake ID to use in the proposed plot.
Later that month, according to the indictment, Maldonado-Passage mailed "Individual 1's" cell phone to Nevada in an attempt to conceal their role, and gave them $3,000 cash to travel to Florida, via South Carolina, to carry out the plot. In exchange, the person would be paid "thousands" once the woman was murdered. A day after receiving the money, the person traveled to South Carolina.
The second count alleges the plot spanned July 2016-March 2018. That's when, according to the indictment, Maldonado-Passage repeatedly asked a person, identified as "Individual 2", to find someone to murder the Florida woman for cash.
In December 2017, "Individual 2" spoke with Maldonado-Passage by phone, offering to introduce him to a person willing to carry out the plot. Three days later the two met with the hit man, who turned out to be an undercover FBI agent.
The woman was never hurt.
"The feds have asked us not to say much," said Current Greater Wynnewood Animal Park Owner Jeff Lowe and declined to talk to News 4 on camera. But he did say he has "been in contact with (the federal authorities) since October 2017," adding he is not one of the "Individuals" in the indictment.
Maldonado-Passage has come under fire from federal authorities in the past, connected to his ownership of the animal park.
His USDA exhibitor's license was suspended in 2006 and ordered to pay a $25,000 fine to settle violations for failing to provide clean water, structurally sound facilities and a lack of trained employees, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Maldonado-Passage has also sought public office. In 2016, then known as Joseph Maldonado, he registered as an Independent for a long-shot bid for the presidency. His campaign committee, Joe Exotic for the People of America, raised more than $15,000, according to federal election filings.
Maldonado-Passage then filed as a Libertarian candidate in the 2018 Oklahoma gubernatorial race, finishing third in the June primary.
In October 2017, the Garvin County Sheriff's office investigated the death of Maldonado-Passage's then-husband who shot himself in the head at the Wynnewood zoo. Garvin County Sheriff Larry Rhodes said at the time that 23-year-old Travis Maldonado put a loaded firearm to his head and pulled the trigger to prove the weapon wouldn't fire with its magazine removed.
Joseph Maldonado remarried less than two months later.