WYNNEWOOD, Okla. — A former wildlife park owner and one-time Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate who goes by the moniker “Joe Exotic” was sentenced Wednesday to 22 years in federal prison in a plot to kill a woman with whom he clashed over his mistreatment of animals.
Joseph Maldonado-Passage, 56, of Wynnewood, Oklahoma, was found guilty last April of two counts of murder-for-hire, eight counts of falsifying wildlife records and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act. Arrested Sept. 7, 2018, in Gulf Breeze, Florida, he went to trial in late March in Oklahoma City.
The "Joe Exotic" case has garnered national attention, including as the subject of a podcast by Wondery for its series, "Over My Dead Body." The description in a trailer for the podcast calls Maldonado-Passage a self-described "gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet."
He also had his own YouTube channel, JoeExoticTV, on which videos were posted until last week.
The Oklahoman reported that Maldonado-Passage's first husband, 23-year-old Travis Maldonado, died of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head Oct. 6, 2017, at the animal park.
Maldonado told those present that the gun would not fire because he had removed the magazine, the newspaper said. A bullet was in the chamber when he pulled the trigger, however.
Maldonado-Passage, at that time the Libertarian candidate to replace outgoing Gov. Mary Fallin, was not present when his husband died. He remarried two months after the fatal shooting, the Times reported.
Maldonado-Passage's federal convictions for violating the Endangered Species Act and for falsifying records, which is a violation of the Lacey Act, involve his treatment of the animals that were in his care when he ran the animal park.
"Maldonado-Passage falsified forms involving the sale of wildlife in interstate commerce, killed five tigers in October 2017 to make room for cage space for other big cats, and sold and offered to sell tiger cubs in interstate commerce. Because tigers are an endangered species, these alleged killings and sales violated the Endangered Species Act," a statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Oklahoma said.
The current owners of the animal park, Lauren and Jeff Lowe, wrote on Facebook Jan. 16 that it would be just six more days before the "monster" who killed the tigers would go to federal prison. The post was accompanied by photos that appeared to show the slain animals' bones being excavated from the ground.
"His tyranny in the animal world is over," the post read. "He will never own another animal again unless his cell has cockroaches."
In an interview with KOCO in Oklahoma City, the Lowes said they were relieved by the sentence and were looking for a fresh start without a connection to "Joe Exotic." They announced plans in 2018 to move the animal park to a new location not sullied by Maldonado-Passage's actions.
"His name will not be mentioned," Lauren Lowe told the news station. "He will have nothing to do with the new facility. Going to let this place in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, die with him."
Animal rights activist Carole Baskin, the woman Maldonado-Passage tried to have killed, spoke in court last week about the decade of threats and verbal venom Maldonado-Passage subjected her to. Her statement, in its entirety, has been posted on her sanctuary's website and on YouTube.
Baskin is the founder of Big Cat Rescue, an animal sanctuary based out of Tampa, Florida.
She told the court Maldonado-Passage’s conviction was based on “only a handful of vivid examples of his malicious intent to murder me.
"The prosecution didn't need to present the daily barrage of threats to harm, rape or kill me that were my daily experience for the past 10 years," Baskin said.
She said that the trial evidence showed how, over a span of several years, Maldonado-Passage repeatedly tried to coerce, and then hire, someone to kill her.
"Because of his constant threats to kill me, I have found myself seeing every bystander as a potential threat," Baskin said. "There is nowhere that I have felt safe, and worse, no way that I feel I can safeguard those around me.
“So many of his threats involved blowing me up, so that he could thrill over seeing me burn to death. Even from jail he gleefully talks about the prospect of me dying a fiery death.”
Baskin told the judge it was “nothing short of a miracle” that she was able to stand up in court and ask that he consider everything Maldonado-Passage took from her.
"As you consider his sentence, I would just like you to take into account that if this vicious, obsessed man is ever released from jail, my life and my family's lives will return to what it was like during the decade leading up to his arrest," Baskin said. "If he completes his sentence and is released, we will end up spending the rest of our lives constantly looking over our shoulders."
Watch Carole Baskin talk about Joseph Maldonado-Passage’s sentencing below.
Maldonado-Passage, who also goes by the name Joseph Allen Schreibvogel, had an ongoing dispute with Baskin stemming from her criticism of his wildlife center’s care, exhibition and breeding practices for big cats like lions and tigers.
“Until 2011, the dispute was carried on primarily through traditional and social media,” a November 2018 indictment in the case reads.
That year, Baskin filed a civil lawsuit against Maldonado-Passage. The Times reported that, in retaliation for Baskin's outreach efforts to stop people from booking his traveling petting zoo, Maldonado-Passage had renamed the attraction the "Big Cat Rescue Entertainment."
The trademark infringement suit in February 2013 resulted in a judgment against Maldonado-Passage, requiring him to pay Baskin more than $1 million. She and her sanctuary have never received any of the money.
By January 2012, Maldonado-Passage's criticism of Baskin turned to threats of violence, including threats on Facebook and YouTube. According to an interview Baskin did with the Times, the threats included a video Maldonado-Passage made of himself shooting a blow-up doll dressed to look like her.
He also produced an image of Baskin hanging in effigy, the newspaper reported.
In early November 2017, Maldonado-Passage began trying to hire a hit man to travel to Florida and kill Baskin, the indictment says.
On Nov. 6, the supposed hit man traveled from Oklahoma to Dallas to get fake identification for use when traveling to Florida. Later that month, Maldonado-Passage mailed the man’s cellphone to Nevada to conceal the proposed gunman’s involvement in the plot.
That same day, Nov. 25, Maldonado-Passage gave the man $3,000 he had received in the sale of a big cat to the man as payment for Baskin’s murder, the indictment says. Thousands more would be paid once the job was complete.
That plot never materialized. The Times reported last year that the would-be killer ran off with the money and never made it to Florida.
Jurors at Maldonado-Passage’s trial also heard that, beginning in July 2016, Maldonado-Passage repeatedly asked a second witness to kill Baskin or to help him find someone who would. The person he went to that time went to authorities and arranged a December 2017 meeting with a supposed hit man.
The hit man was an undercover FBI agent.
"The jury heard a recording of his meeting with the agent to discuss details of the planned murder," a statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
Watch a “Joe Exotic Sizzle Reel” from Maldonado-Passage’s YouTube channel below. It may contain some graphic language.
Timothy J. Downing, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma, said Maldonado-Passage’s conviction and sentencing was the result of “countless hours of detailed investigative work by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
"We are thankful for the court's thoughtful consideration of the gravity of this murder-for-hire scheme, as well as the defendant's egregious wildlife crimes in imposing a 22-year sentence," Downing said.
Edward Grace, assistant director of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement, said the successful prosecution was the result of cooperation between the U. S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
"Wildlife crime is often connected with other criminal activity, such as fraud, narcotics, money-laundering and smuggling. Mr. Maldonado-Passage added murder-for-hire," Grace said in a statement. "The service, along with our partners, will continue to bring to justice those involved in wildlife trafficking and other assorted crimes."