OKLAHOMA CITY -- Seven witnesses were called to the stand Monday in the trial against former Oklahoma zoo owner accused in a federal murder-for-hire plot.
Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known to Oklahomans as 'Joe Exotic', appeared in court Monday for the first day of his trial. Maldonado-Passage, former owner of the Greater Wynnewood Animal Park, was indicted in September 2018 on two counts of hiring a person to commit murder.
Federal prosecutors allege Maldonado-Passage of hiring a person in November 2017 to murder "Jane Doe", who has since been identified as Carole Baskin, in Florida. In a second count, the indictment alleges that beginning in July 2016, Maldonado-Passage repeatedly asked a different unnamed person to find someone to murder Jane Doe in exchange for money. The second person put Maldonado-Passage in contact with an undercover FBI agent.
At the heart of the case is revenge, prosecutors said Monday.
Baskin, CEO 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.
In September, Baskin spoke with News 4 reporter Bill Miston and claimed Maldonado-Passage had been threatening her for years.
"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 also faces 19 counts of wildlife charges, including violation of the Endangered Species Act. Among former employees who testified Monday was Erik Cowie.
Cowie worked at the Garvin County park for five years, working closely with the tigers. Though Cowie did not witness it, he testified in court that he heard gunshots in October 2017 when prosecutors allege Maldonado-Passage shot five tigers.
"I knew what was going on. I'm [not] stupid," Cowie told reporters Monday. "I knew cats were getting shot."
According to Cowie, the five tigers had not been breeding cubs but were otherwise healthy. The plan, he claims, included killing the tigers to make room for more cats.
"Cage space. We needed three cages. He wiped out five cats," he said. "He came up a 4-10 in his hand and I knew he just shot Cuddles. I heard it, and he comes up the hill and goes…[expletive], Erik. If I knew it was going to be this easy to just walk right up the cage, I was just going to kill them all."
The defense noted Cowie was not a trained veterinarian and questioned why he did not come forward if the accusations were, in fact, true. Maldonado-Passage's attorney also claims he was set up and "played along" with the murder-for-hire plot but had no intentions of killing Baskin.
The trial is expected to last for more than one week.