For years, Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, more commonly known by the name "Joe Exotic," ran a private zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, that featured big cats among its most notable inhabitants. However, many animal rights activists were critical of the exotic park, claiming that Joe Exotic mistreated the animals and should not have allowed the public to pet tiger cubs at the facility. Some claimed that, rather than running a wildlife sanctuary, Exotic's showcased his animals purely for profit, even killing five tigers once they were beyond cub-bearing in an effort to make room for more cubs and more "useful" animals. One of his most vocal critics, Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue in Florida, became the target of a supposed murder-for-hire plot allegedly orchestrated by Joe Exotic.
Baskin sued Maldonado-Passage for trademark and copyright infringement after he traveled under a name similar to that of her organization. She was awarded $1 million in that lawsuit.
Today begins opening statements in Joe Exotic's trial. Federal prosecutors say they plan to present witness testimony that shows the former zoo owner tried on several occasions to hire someone to murder Baskin. Evidence against Maldonado-Passage includes the following:
- In 2012, he appeared in a video ranting about Baskin, saying, "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 2014, he shot Baskin in effigy, saying, "Look how sick and tired of this [expletive] I am."
- In 2017, he allegedly offered a zoo worker $3,000 to kill Baskin. That same year, a witness called Baskin to warn her of a murder-for-hire plot against her, and she notified federal authorities.
- He also allegedly attempted to hire an undercover FBI agent posing as a hit man to kill Baskin.
Prosecutors say that FBI agent will testify at trial and that jurors will hear a recording of their conversation.
One possible motive for the attempted murder-for-hire is Baskin's affect on the zoo's financial difficulties. According to federal prosecutors, "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. 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."
Joe Exotic has remained in federal custody since his arrest in Florida partly because of concerns that he is suicidal.
The animal park formerly owned by Joe Exotic is now owned by a man named Jeff Lowe. Lowe plans to close the existing park and move the animals to a new location in southern Oklahoma.
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