Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado-Passage illegally sold lion cubs, callously shot surplus tigers to free up cage space at his zoo and ultimately sought the ultimate revenge on a Florida woman he blamed for all his money and legal problems, assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Brown told jurors Monday.
“It is said to seek revenge out of anger and retaliation will devour your very soul,” Brown said.
Flanked by his two of court-appointed attorneys, Maldonado-Passage looked tired and thin in his grey suit and blonde-streaked mullet as the court proceedings began.
Maldonado-Passage is on trial for allegedly trying to hire two people to kill Carole Baskin, the founder of the Florida wildlife refuge Big Cat Rescue.
Baskin had long feuded with Maldonado-Passage over his treatment of tiger cubs at his Oklahoma roadside zoo. Baskin had a $1 million court judgement against Maldonado-Passage that she tried unsuccessfully for years to collect.
Maldonado-Passage also faces multiple counts of wildlife trafficking and violating the federal Endangered Species Act, including allegedly shooting and killing five tigers at his former zoo, the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park.
In one unsuccessful murder plot, Maldonado-Passage gave a worker at the Wynnewood Zoo an envelope stuffed with $3,000 in cash, a new cell phone and a fake ID and sent him to Florida to kill Baskin, Brown said.
Maldonado-Passage showed the zoo worker photographs of Baskin and suggested hiding in the bushes with a gun on the bike path she took to work each morning at the wildlife refuge.
The government also claims Maldonado-Passage attempted to hire a second hitman to kill Baskin who was, in fact, an undercover federal agent.
On social media, Maldonado-Passage railed against Baskin and frequently quipped about killing her. In one video, he shot a blow-up doll with a handgun in Baskin’s effigy.
At the zoo, he illegally sold federally protected animal species including lions and tigers, in part to finance paying a hitman, Brown said.
Maldonado-Passage allegedly shot and killed five healthy adult tigers at the Wynnewood Zoo to make room for more animals, according to court testimony. The zoo needed to free up cages for five circus animals the zoo was being paid $5,000 to board over the winter.
“He needed the money because Carole Baskin had ruined him financially and that is what ultimately consumed him,” Brown said.
William Earley, Maldonado-Passage’s attorney, countered that his client was only guilty of an “inability to close his mouth.”
Maldonado-Passage is a larger-than-life entertainer who sometimes let his anger at animal welfare groups get the best of him. Sometimes he could take a joke too far, Earley said.
The more outlandish Maldonado-Passage’s online threats against Baskin became, the more the internet rewarded him with the attention he craved, Earley said. The jokes began to spill over from the internet to his real life.
“The loss of awareness and good sense on his part overtook his life at the zoo,” he said.
The defense claims Maldonado-Passage was framed by a handful of rivals and enemies at the Wynnewood Zoo who wanted him out of the way. Maldonado-Passage never intended to follow through with any plans to kill Baskin, Earley said.
The government called as its first witness a former zoo worker Eric Cowie, who testified Maldonado-Passage and another man tranquilized five tigers at the zoo and shot them in the head with a .410 shotgun in 2017.
It’s illegal to hunt, kill or sell lions and tigers in the United States under the Endangered Species Act.
Another zoo worker, Dylan West, testified he was ordered to pick up the tiger carcasses using a skid steer loader and bury them in a back pasture at the zoo.
“‘Jesus, if I knew it was this easy, I’d just go ahead and blast them all, ’” Maldonado-Passage said after the killings, according to Cowie’s testimony.
The trial is expected to last about two weeks.
If convicted, Maldonado-Passage could face decades of prison time. He is charged with two counts of murder-for hire — counts which carry a maximum 10 year sentence each.
Each of the wildlife trafficking counts he faces carries a maximum five year sentence. Maldonado-Passage also faces eight counts of violating the Endangered Species Act, with a maximum 1 year in prison each.