Trial Reveals Seamy Side of Tiger Park

OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) — An Oklahoma federal jury convicted zookeeper “Joe Exotic” on all charges Tuesday of trying to hire a hitman to murder a rival animal sanctuary operator in Florida and for killing five tigers under his care.

Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, 56, of Wynnewood, was convicted of two counts of murder-for-hire, eight counts of violating the Lacey Act and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act. He faces up to 10 years in federal prison.

Calling himself the “Tiger King,” Maldonado-Passage was known for his flamboyant blond mullet and expletive-filled YouTube videos featuring wild animals.

“The self-described Tiger King was not above the law,” First Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert J. Troester said in a 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.”

Maldonado-Passage was indicted seven months ago, accused of paying an undercover FBI agent $10,000 to kill Carole Baskin, of Tampa, Florida. She operates the rival Big Cat Rescue sanctuary and has a $1 million trademark infringement judgment against Maldonado-Passage’s park. Prosecutors presented evidence during the weeklong trial that Maldonado-Passage had been trying to have Baskin killed since 2016.

Baskin said after the verdict that she is “grateful that justice was served” and that Maldonado-Passage will no longer threaten her or his animals.

“For years, a network of big cat owners like Passage who have engaged in cruel cub petting schemes and the exhibition of big cats have also been engaging in the illegal sale of tigers and other animals back and forth among themselves simply by checking the box on the USDA transfer form that says ‘donated’ instead of ‘sale’ and quietly paying cash for the animals,” Baskin said in a statement. “During the trial, several big cat owners were specifically mentioned as people Passage had sold tigers to. We believe this illegal practice is common among cub breeders and exhibitors.”

Baskin said she hopes the evidence of the transfers will result in more criminal prosecutions.

“A superseding indictment handed down on November 7, 2018, further alleged 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,” prosecutors said. “Because tigers are an endangered species, these alleged killings and sales violated the Endangered Species Act.”

Maldonado-Passage will be sentenced within 90 days, prosecutors said.

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