Joseph Maldonado-Passage is being held without bond in a Florida jail. SANTA ROSA COUNTY JAIL

Speaking from a Florida jail cell, Joe Exotic said he was framed in an alleged murder-for hire scheme.

“I’ve been set up and I have four cell phones full of screenshots and text messages to prove it when I get back to Oklahoma,” he said.

Joseph Maldonado-Passage, 55, wore jailhouse orange, his trademark bleach-blonde mullet still defiantly tousled.

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The Frontier spoke with the zookeeper and former Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate via a collect video call from a jail cell in the Florida Panhandle, where he is being held without bond.

A federal grand jury has indicted Maldonado-Passage on two counts of hiring a person to commit murder.

Carole Baskin, CEO and Founder of the Florida animal sanctuary Big Cat Rescue—a longtime foe of Joe Exotic—is believed to be Maldonado-Passage’s intended target.

“I’ve been fighting with her in court since 2011. Do I like the lady—obviously not,” Maldonado Passage said. “But If I wanted her dead, wouldn’t I have done it before spending three quarters of a million dollars on legal fees?”

In a phone interview, Baskin said Maldonado-Passage viewed her as a threat after she wrote about his tiger cub business on her website  Maldonado-Passage exhibited the cubs at shopping malls and fairs, selling private photo and play sessions with the animals, a practice Baskin believes is inhumane.

Nobody quite knows what happens to the cubs once they get too big and dangerous to use in the play sessions — some are sold — others mysteriously disappear, Baskin said.

“He had been threatening me for eight years,” Baskin said. “His vitriol for me is about the fact I’ve exposed this very lucrative business he has.”

Big Cat Rescue successfully sued the Tiger King when he began using the name Big Cat Rescue Entertainment for his traveling tiger cub exhibitions.

The animal refuge has been trying to collect on the $1 million judgement it won against Maldonado-Passage for the past five years.

Maldonado-Passage claims his former business associate, Jeff Lowe, who owns Greater Wynnewood Animal Park, set him up in an FBI sting operation in order to take control of his animals and zoo.

“These charges have been drummed up by three convicted felons to overtake my zoo and get my animals,” he said.

Lowe did not respond to requests for comment and he recently fired the attorney who was representing him in litigation related to the zoo.

In Facebook posts, Lowe has accused Maldonado-Passage of embezzling more than $88,000 from the zoo, shooting some of the animals, and also forging his name on thousands of dollars of personal checks.

“I guess the hillbilly didn’t know that I have been setting his ass up for almost a year, I’m loaded with knowledge, try me Joe,” Lowe wrote in one post dated Aug. 9, almost a month before federal prosecutors unsealed the murder-for hire indictment.

Things fall apart for the Tiger King

Things were falling apart for Joe Exotic in the months before his arrest.

In July, Maldonado-Passage was banished from the rural Oklahoma zoo off Interstate 35 where he had held court and bred and trained big cats for the past two decades.

He claims he had a falling out with Lowe and left the park without his beloved cats, which included exotic hybrid tiger-lion crossbreed animals that are unique to the Wynnewood zoo.

“It took me 18 years to breed the hybrids,” he said, a twinge of sadness creeping into his voice.

Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park is now controlled by a court-appointed receiver as a result years of litigation with Big Cat Rescue.

Since taking control of the Wynnewood zoo’s finances in July, the receiver has said that the zoo’s affairs are in disarray and the park appears to have been operating for years in violation of multiple labor and tax laws.

“There are no payroll records – merely random slips of paper,” the receiver claimed in an August court filing.

The zoo paid its workers a flat $300 a week, ignoring federal minimum wage laws, and also failed to collect payroll taxes, according to the receiver. The zoo also did not collect sales tax on admission or gift shop sales and faces substantial tax liability.

It’s also unclear who owns which animals at the zoo, and who should be paying for their upkeep, according to the receiver. In past years, Joe Exotic had housed more than 200 big cats at the park.

Maldonado-Passage said after he left the zoo, Lowe sent him a letter requesting more than $4 million to pay for his beloved cats’ care.
“He’s been making money off of showing my animals,” he said.

A rough year for Joe Exotic

The Tiger King finished a disappointing third place in the Oklahoma Libertarian gubernatorial primary in June — commanding just 664 votes.

In January, Maldonado-Passage broke his shoulder blade, two vertebrae in his neck and his right leg in a car accident after running a stop light. A Gofundme page set up to raise $25,000 for his medical expenses only garnered about $1,000 in donations.
In October 2017, his 23-year old husband, Travis Maldonado, died in an accidental shooting at the zoo.

In tribute, Maldonado-Passage made a tearful music video featuring slow-motion clips of his late husband skydiving, doing stunts on a four-wheeler and air-humping an animal cage.
He also turned Maldonado’s day-glo green dune buggy into a shrine at the zoo, surrounded with flowers.

“I wasn’t in my right mind after my husband died. Why would I be? — I was suicidal,” Maldonado-Passage said.

Joe remarried two months later, to a 22-year old college student from Texas.

Roadside zoo struggled financially for years

With the $1 million Big Cat Rescue judgement looming over his head, Maldonado-Passage, was forced to sell the Wynnewood zoo property in 2016. The hope was that Lowe, the new owner, would stave off creditors and inject new capital into the business. Until the summer of 2018, Maldonado-Passage continued to work at the zoo as “entertainment director” tending to the animals and giving performances.

In court depositions, Lowe describes the zoo and Maldonado-Passage as desperate for cash and constantly on the verge of having the utilities shut off before he arrived on the scene in 2015 with an offer to help pay the bills. Lowe eventually purchased the zoo in 2016.
Maldonado-Passage was in poor health and Lowe had initially hoped the Tiger King would die, leaving him in control of the zoo, he said in court testimony. Lowe was the beneficiary of Maldonado-Passage’s life insurance.

“I kind of felt like I was lurking, like a vulture lurking over the sick, you know, prey,” Lowe said in the deposition. “But it was — it was kind of my feeling — is, ‘Let’s hang this out. Let’s hold out a little bit longer, continue to keep the park solvent.’ And I said, ‘Joe just might die on us.’”

The Tiger King recovered, but the zoo’s finances continued to be in poor health under Lowe’s ownership.

Joe Exotic is shown with one of his tigers at Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. COURTESY

Big Cat Rescue has accused Maldonado-Passage of using various legal maneuvers to avoid paying the $1-million court judgement, including filing for bankruptcy, closing and reopening the zoo under a new name and, finally, selling the property to Lowe.

In one 2016, court filing, Big Cat Rescue accused Maldonado-Passage of continuing to run the zoo long after he claimed not to own the property anymore, using cash from the business for various Tiger King-esque living expenses—including his 2016 presidential campaign.

His personal expenses included “making music videos in which he stars as “Joe Exotic;” paying musicians, singers and songwriters who participate in the making of these music videos; paying third-party publicists and PR personnel whose primary function is to promote the “Joe Exotic” brand….financing plastic surgery; contributing substantial logistical and financial support to Mr. Maldonado’s present campaign to be elected President of the United States; and paying for air and limousine travel and hotel expenses, and entertainment on such travel,” Big Cat Rescue claimed.

‘I wasn’t trying to run from the law’ 

Last week, federal deputies tackled Maldonado-Passage in a hospital parking lot in Gulf Breeze, Florida,  guns drawn, he said. He was going to the hospital to apply for a job, he said.

“They stuck a bunch of guns in my face,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to run from the law. I was down here trying to keep me and my husband safe.”

He and his husband of 10 months were staying at a tidy brick ranch-style house near the Gulf of Mexico at the time of his arrest.

The couple went to Florida after a falling out with Lowe. Maldonado-Passage posted screenshots of what he says are threats of violence from Lowe to his husband on his Instagram page.

“I will knock the (gay slur) out of you little boy,” one message said.

The Tiger King said his Santa Rosa County jail cell is filthier than any cage he would keep an animal in. He said there’s dried snot and feces smeared on the walls. He’s being held in protective custody.

Maldonado-Passage’s Oklahoma City attorney, Dan Good, said he has been unable to talk to his client yet. Good hopes Maldonado-Passage can be transported back to Oklahoma in another week.

“He has a lot of people here who love and support him who are wishing him the best right now,” Good said.

Maldonado-Passage faces up to 20 years in federal prison.