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‘Tiger King’ resentenced to 21 years in murder-for-hire plot

A federal judge reduced Joe Exotic's sentence by just one year after the 10th Circuit ruled murder-for-hire charges should be grouped together concurrently, not consecutively.

OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) — Convicted “Tiger King” star Joe Exotic was resentenced Friday morning to 21 years in federal prison for trying to kill rival tiger enthusiast and docuseries co-star Carole Baskin, only a slight reduction from his original sentence of 22 years.

U.S. District Judge Scott L. Palk lowered the sentence of Exotic aka Joseph Maldonado-Passage, 58, during a two-hour sentencing hearing in Oklahoma City federal court. He rejected defense arguments that Maldonado-Passage should only be sentenced to seven-and-one-half years.

Maldonado-Passage was originally convicted by a federal jury in 2019 on two courts of murder-for-hire, eight counts of violating the Lacey Act for falsifying wildlife records and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act. Jurors found he tried to hire an undercover FBI agent to kill Baskin for $10,000.

Maldonado-Passage was shackled in chains and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit. He pleaded with the judge that "any sentence I get is a death sentence."

"Please don't make me die in prison waiting for my freedom," he said Friday. "I haven't received a dime from 'Tiger King.'"

Baskin attended the hearing while wearing a tiger-print long-sleeved shirt. Maldonado-Passage and Baskin did not look at each other as she asked the judge to impose a heavy sentence. She claimed Maldonado-Passage is taking advantage of his newfound fame from the television show "to inspire others to kill me."

"He continues to exhibit feelings of ill will towards me," Baskin said. "He is a greater risk to me and my family now than at his original sentencing."

Palk, a Donald Trump appointee, considered each murder-for-hire count separately when he originally sentenced Maldonado-Passage to 22 years in federal prison. The 10th Circuit disagreed on appeal, remanding the case back to Palk for resentencing after concluding last July the similar charges should be grouped together concurrently.

U.S. Circuit Judge Gregory Phillips, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote Baskin “was neither murdered multiple times nor assaulted multiple times” during Exotic’s scheme.

“Her harm was one sustained, ongoing harm,” the 22-page opinion stated. “She learned that Maldonado-Passage intended to have her killed and lived with that fear.”

The recalculation meant Maldonado-Passage faced a new sentencing range of 20 to 22 years Friday.

The Denver-based appeals court ordered the remand in spite of voicing reluctance during oral arguments over how small the sentence adjustment would be.

“So two months is all we are talking about,” Phillips remarked during the January 2021 hearing.

Maldonado-Passage’s appellate attorney, Brandon Sample, disagreed and stated his hope the court would impose a range of 210 to 262 months instead of the trial judge’s range of 262 to 267 months.

“Hope springs eternal,” Phillips deadpanned, with the rest of the three-judge panel audibly laughing.

Joe Exotic’s former Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park is seen in Wynnewood, Okla., on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, one day before Exotic, real name Joseph Maldonado-Passage, received a one-year prison sentence reduction. (David Lee/Courthouse News)

Friday's hearing was limited in scope to the resentencing and not to Maldonado-Passage's guilt. That did not stop him from defiantly asking the judge to free him. He told the judge that several of the witnesses in his original trial fabricated evidence against him.

"The government was aware of all these lies and watched you sentence me," an emotional Maldonado-Passage said. "I have been kept in solitary confinement for 16 months."

He denied having ever seen "Tiger King" and complained that others have gained money and fame at his expense.

"Even my own husband sold my clothes to a museum in Las Vegas," Maldonado-Passage lamented.

Calling himself the “Tiger King,” Maldonado-Passage gained a following on YouTube and local television with his flashy blond mullet and expletive-filled videos featuring wild animals. Along with Baskin, he became a star when Netflix released the “Tiger King” docuseries in 2020 that chronicled their years-long feud between his for-profit roadside zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, and her tiger rescue sanctuary in Tampa, Florida.

Some of Maldonado-Passage’s highest-viewed YouTube videos feature him lip-synching to original country music songs about his animals and about Baskin, including one where he accuses her of killing her husband and feeding him to her tigers.

The murder-for-hire scheme was the result of Baskin’s $1 million trademark judgment against Maldonado-Passage over his use of her Big Cat Rescue name. Palk ultimately awarded Maldonado-Passage’s former 16.4-acre zoo property to Baskin in 2020 to partially satisfy that judgment. The judge ruled Maldonado-Passage had fraudulently transferred the land to his mother to shield it from Baskin.

Baskin reportedly sold the former zoo last June for $140,000 to two private buyers.

Maldonado-Passage and Baskin have remained in the headlines since the docuseries, with Netflix’s release of “Tiger King 2” and Peacock’s release of “Joe vs. Carole,” a limited series starring Kate McKinnon and John Cameron Mitchell as the title characters.

Maldonado-Passage has not remained idle behind bars, as he filed a $93 million federal civil lawsuit against the federal government soon after his conviction. He accused federal officials of being biased, homophobic and animal rights supporters in going after him.

He filed a separate lawsuit against the Justice Department in December 2020 after its refusal to directly present a pardon request to former President Trump during his final months in office. Trump had joked with reporters that he would “take a look” at pardoning Maldonaldo-Passage before the lawsuit was filed, but ultimately did not pardon him. Maldonado-Passage has since asked President Joe Biden for a pardon, calling his incarceration an “injustice.”

Maldonado-Passage is currently fighting prostate cancer behind bars. He was transferred to federal court Friday from Federal Medical Center Butner in North Carolina. His lawyers say he has delayed treatment in order to attend the hearing in person.

During her statement to Palk on Friday, Baskin accused Maldonado-Passage of once posting on social media before his incarceration that "Tampa would have one less person" if he ever came down with a terminal illness.

"My death would be his 'last act,'" she said. "He has had two years to show remorse for his crimes."

Baskin has remained active in civil court as well. She filed suit in Tampa federal court in November, demanding the producers of “Tiger King” not use footage she made in 2016 and 2018 for the show without a separate appearance release for “Tiger King 2.”

“Throughout the appearance releases, there is only reference to and mention of ‘the picture,’” the 21-page complaint stated. “No mention is made of granting Royal Goode Production sequel rights, rights to create derivative works from ‘the picture’ or additional seasons or episodes.”

Social media posts by Maldonado-Passage's attorneys and supporters drummed up a full courtroom gallery, with several supporters inside wearing "Free Joe Exotic" and "Spirit Animal" shirts featuring his face and mullet.

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