Jury finds ‘Joe Exotic’ guilty in murder-for-hire plot, wildlife charges

OKLAHOMA CITY — A federal jury has found Oklahoma’s ‘tiger king’ guilty of all counts Tuesday, including trying to hire someone to commit murder.

56-year-old Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as 'Joe Exotic,' was indicted in September on two counts of murder-for-hire and later indicted with more than a dozen wildlife charges. A jury found the former Greater Wynnewood Animal Park owner guilty of all 19 counts Tuesday after four hours of deliberation.

“The self-described Tiger King was not above the law,” said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert J. Troester in a prepared statement. “Rather, the jury only needed a few hours of deliberation before finding him guilty of engaging in a murder-for-hire plot to kill a rival and violating federal laws intended to protect wildlife when he killed multiple tigers, sold tiger cubs and falsified wildlife records. We are thankful for the jury’s careful attention, deliberation and verdict in this case.”

Prosecutors say tntended target was Carole Baskin, a chief critic of Maldonado-Passage. Baskin is owner of Big Cat Rescue, a sanctuary in Florida. She successfully sued Maldonado-Passage in 2011 for trademark infringement before a 2013 judgment ordered Maldonado-Passage to pay $1 million.

During cross arguments Tuesday, the government pointed to secretly recorded conversations between Maldonado-Passage, an informant and an undercover FBI agent posing as a hitman. Maldonado-Passage is heard in one, talking about Baskin’s usual daily locations she would frequent.

"Did Joe do wrong? Yeah, I’m sure he did wrong. He did sell cubs. He did transport cubs. The murder-for-hire thing? I don’t think it ever would have went this far unless someone pushed it," said a long-time friend of Maldonado-Passage and former park manager John Reinke.

During trial, the jury also heard evidence that Maldonado-Passage paid former park employee Allen Glover $3,000 from Oklahoma to go to South Carolina and then Florida to murder Baskin with a promise to pay thousands more after the deed.

Another key witness in the case was an undercover FBI agent posing as the hitman. According to prosecutors, Maldonado-Passage repeatedly sought someone to murder Baskin in exchange for money starting in July 2016 which led to his meeting with the undercover agent on December 8, 2017.

However, the defense has long claimed their client was framed. They said he was all talk and had no intentions of wanting Baskin dead. During cross examination, U.S. public defender Bill Earley told the jurors to consider the fact that both plots commenced at the same time but apparently "without any collusion" to support their claim that Maldonado-Passage was set up.

“Keep that in mind and consider who has a motive to snare Mr. Passage," Earley told the jury.

He also noted Glover's testimony "was impossible to corroborate" because he did not take a phone with him to Florida and admitted on the stand to being under the influence at certain points when he was sent to South Carolina and Florida.

Maldonado-Passage's attorneys told us before the verdict was delivered Tuesday, they would not be commenting or releasing a statement regardless of the outcome.

In addition to the murder-for-hire counts, Maldonado-Passage was also convicted of violating the Lacey Act. Under that law, it a crime to falsify records of wildlife transactions in interstate commerce. He has also been convicted of shooting and killing five tigers in October 2017 without a veterinarian present and in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Maldonado-Passage could be imprisoned on each murder-for-hire count up to 10 years. He would also be subject to up to three years of supervised release and a fine of up to $250,000 per count. Each Lacey Act violation could carry a prison term of five years, a fine of $250,000 and three years of supervised release. Each Endangered Species Act count could result in one year in prison, a fine of $100,000 and one year of supervised release.

Maldonado-Passage will remain in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service pending sentencing, which will take place in approximately 90 days.

On Tuesday afternoon, PETA president released the following statement:

"'Joe Exotic' has been on PETA's radar for years as a notorious animal abuser and as the primary supplier of big-cat cubs for the cruel cub-petting industry, and PETA already succeeded in getting 39 tigers, three bears, two baboons and two chimpanzees out of his hands and into reputable sanctuaries. The world will be a safer place for all living beings with this man behind bars, where he can no longer harm animals or the animal advocates he hanged in effigy."

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