FBI agent, informant testify in murder-for-hire trial against ‘Joe Exotic’

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- In the third day of a trial against Oklahoma's 'tiger king' best known as 'Joe Exotic,' text messages and recorded phone calls were played for the jury.

Joseph Maldonado-Passage, former owner of the Greater Wynnewood Animal Park, faces 21 counts for his role in an alleged murder-for-hire plot and wildlife crimes. The intended target, according to federal prosecutors, was Florida sanctuary owner Carole Baskin.

A special agent with the FBI testified Wednesday that they first began investigating Passage in February 2017. According to the FBI, there was already an active investigation into possible wildlife trafficking opened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The threats against Baskin, which were allegedly made by Passage, were under investigation by the FBI but did not meet the requirements for a federal charge at the time, the special agent testified Wednesday. However, they were later able to get in touch with a long-time acquaintance of Passage who eventually agreed to work with the agency as a confidential informant.

The informant in this case testified that Passage frequently complained of being "always broke" from hiring lawyers amid ongoing legal battles between himself and Baskin. In 2011, Baskin successfully sued Passage for trademark infringement. A 2013 judgement ordered him to pay $1 million.

According to the informant witness, Passage asked him "about a half-dozen times" between 2016 and 2017 if he knew anyone who would kill Baskin. In the fall of 2017, he began recording their phone conversations under the instruction of FBI agents.

He testified, he told Passage "one of my guys just got out of jail recently." The "hitman" in the alleged plan has since been revealed as an undercover agent.

A recorded conversation between the informant and Passage in November 2017 was played in court Wednesday. In the recording, Passage is heard saying he was "tired of killing myself paying for lawyers" and then asking "how much will this dude cost us?"

However, the defense noted in many of the phone calls, it was not Passage who brought up the hiring of a hitman. Instead, they argue the informant brought it up first.

They also add there was no evidence of money exchanged for the "hitman" or the purchase of burner phones and firearms.

On Wednesday, the man who prosecutors allege Passage first hired in an attempt to carry out the murder-for-hire scheme also took the stand. He testified Passage was "a cruel person" and the two "came close to blows". His testimony continues on Thursday morning.

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