OKLAHOMA CITY –Jury selection began in the case against a former exotic animal zookeeper accused of planning to pay for the murder of a Florida woman.
Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as “Joe Exotic” and former owner of the Greater Wynnewood Animal Park, was indicted by an Oklahoma federal grand jury with two counts of murder-for-hire in September.
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.
A grand jury also indicted Maldonado-Passage with an additional 19 counts of wildlife charges, including the violation of the Endangered Species Act and Lacey Act. He’s accused of shooting and killing five tigers in October 2017 to make room in cages for other big cats, and selling and offering to sell tiger cubs. He’s also accused of falsifying records relating to the tigers, lions and a baby lemur which were purportedly being donated or transported for exhibition, but were actually sold.
New court filings detail how Maldonado-Passage allegedly planned to sell big cat cubs in order to pay for the murder.
According to court documents, a witness reportedly admitted to picking up a big cat cub and putting it in a vehicle, and saw "the driver of the vehicle give an envelope of cash to Mr. Maldonado-Passage to pay for the cub." The next day, the witness says Maldonado-Passage gave him the same envelope to be used to pay for the murder.
"The government does not allege that the sale of the big cat described in paragraph 22 and in Individual 1's testimony is one of the sales of the tigers and lions charged against Mr. Maldonado-Passage in Counts 8-20. Indeed, the government currently has no evidence that this sale was illegal. However, this sale is fully consistent with Mr. Maldonado-Passage's business model of breeding and selling big cat cubs and thereby deriving a significant source of his income in cash. The cash from this particular transaction gave him the ability to fund the hit on C.B.," the documents state.
Officials state that they also have recordings of Maldonado-Passage negotiating the hiring of the undercover FBI agent, who was posing as a hitman. When talking about payment, Maldonado-Passage reportedly said, "I'll just sell a bunch of tigers."
Court documents show that jury selection for Maldonado-Passage's trial was set to begin on Tuesday.
His trial is scheduled to begin on March 25.