Jury to hear first testimony in Joe Exotic murder-for-hire trial
For years, Joe Exotic operated a private zoo in Wynnewood that delighted visitors —and enraged animal rights groups — because he allowed tiger cubs to be petted.
"I treat every one of them like they’re my kids," he said of the zoo animals in an online promotional video.
With his catchy nickname, colorful outfits and the savvy of a showman of old, he created a public persona of a lovable oddball. He built on that by running in 2016 for president of the United States as an independent and in 2018 for governor of Oklahoma as a Libertarian.
But prosecutors say he had a dark side.
They have told a federal judge they will put on testimony in his trial for murder-for-hire that he had been offering people money since 2014 to kill his chief critic, Carole Baskin of Florida. Jurors will begin hearing from prosecution witnesses after opening statements are completed Monday in Oklahoma City federal court.
One witness called Baskin and left a warning in a voice message after being offered money in February 2017, prosecutors told the judge. Baskin in turn notified federal authorities.
The big cat breeder, whose full name is Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, claims he is being framed by the zoo's new owner, Jeff Lowe.
Joe Exotic and Baskin, the operator of an animal sanctuary, have been feuding for more than a decade over his treatment of exotic animals.
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She has complained that "those who rip tiger cubs from their mothers at birth to charge the public to pet and take photos with them" are animal abusers and that Joe Exotic was one of the most notorious.
Baskin is CEO of Big Cat Rescue, a nonprofit animal sanctuary based in Tampa. In 2013, Big Cat Rescue won court judgments of more than $1 million against him for copyright and trademark infringements after he used a similar name for a traveling roadshow.
Baskin has been trying to collect on the judgments for years, resulting in further litigation against him, his mother and Lowe.
Among the key evidence against him is online videos he posted complaining about Baskin.
In a 2012 online video, he said about Baskin, "I am the most dangerous exotic animal owner on this planet right now and before you bring me down it is my belief that you will stop breathing."
In a 2014 video, he shot an effigy of Baskin in the head. Using a curse word, he said, "That is how sick and tired of this ... I am."
He is accused specifically in a federal indictment of paying $3,000 to a zoo worker in 2017 to kill Baskin and later offering to pay an FBI agent who was posing as a hit man.
He also is accused in the indictment of 19 wildlife violations. They include that he killed five tigers in October 2017 because he needed the space and they could no longer breed and provide him new cubs to show. He claims he killed the tigers for humane reasons.
"I put five tigers to sleep because they were in pain," he told KOCO-5, an Oklahoma City television station. "They had toenails coming out of their ankles. They had no teeth. They had exposed root canals."
The FBI undercover agent will testify at trial under the same fake name he used when he met with Maldonado-Passage. Jurors also will hear a recording of their conversation.
Jurors also will be allowed to hear testimony about the zoo's financial troubles, over defense objections.
"Evidence regarding the lack of money to purchase food for animals is relevant to the jury understanding that Ms. Baskin’s $1 million judgment against Mr. Maldonado placed significant financial pressure on the zoo," prosecutors told U.S. District Judge Scott Palk. "Accordingly, this evidence is relevant to establishing Mr. Maldonado’s state of mind toward Ms. Baskin — including the motive and intent to have her murdered."
Prosecutors said they will not put on evidence that the defendant embezzled zoo money to finance his campaigns for president and governor. Last year, Lowe told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that he discovered Maldonado-Passage had been forging his name on checks and using zoo income to finance the gubernatorial campaign, according to a court affidavit.
Maldonado-Passage, now 56, was arrested in September in Gulf Breeze, Florida, months after leaving his home at the zoo. He has been in custody ever since in part because of concerns he might commit suicide if released.
Lowe is working to shut down the zoo in Wynnewood and display the animals in a new location in southern Oklahoma near Thackerville.