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Joe Exotic’s Trial Begins

Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, known as "Joe Exotic," was Sept. 2018

Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, also known as "Joe Exotic," ran for governor as a Libertarian in 2018, but he is perhaps better known for operating a private petting zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. He is on trial this week in Oklahoma City federal court for allegedly hiring two people to murder wildlife sanctuary owner Carole Baskin.

Baskin runs Big Cat Rescue in Florida, and she has been a vocal critic of Joe Exotic, who kept 1,400 animals, including over 150 tigers, on a sixteen acre property.

“A significant part of our mission has been to stop the mistreatment and exploitation of big cats at roadside zoos particularly those who rip tiger cubs from their mothers at birth to charge the public to pet and take photos with them,” Baskin said. “Maldonado ran, in my view, one of the most notorious cub petting roadside zoos in the country.”

This is not the two’s first legal encounter. Baskin says she made efforts to stop Joe Exotic from bringing his cubs to malls throughout the country. He then renamed his traveling show “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment,” which led Baskin to sue in 2011 over intellectual property rights. According to Baskin, Joe Exotic began threatening her online following the lawsuit, which she eventually won in 2013.

Baskin preserved video and screenshots of the threats on her website, which are expected to be used as evidence by federal prosecutors. In one video, Joe Exotic shoots blow up doll dressed to look like Baskin. In another, he addresses Baskin personally, saying, “Before you bring me down, it is my belief that you will stop breathing."

But Joe Exotic allegedly went further. A federal indictmentaccuses him of paying an employee $3,000 to kill Baskin in 2017, an amount obtained from selling a tiger, according to prosecutors. The government also alleges he offered to pay an undercover FBI agent posing as a hit man to commit the same crime.

Joe Exotic also faces 19 Endangered Species Act violations, including killing five tigers to that could no longer breed to make room for other large cats he planned to board for money.

Jurors heard opening statements on Monday. Joe Exotic pleaded not guilty to the charges, and faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. The trial is expected to go into next week.

Caroline produced Capitol Insider and did general assignment reporting from 2018 to 2019. She joined KGOU after a stint at Marfa Public Radio, where she covered a wide range of local and regional issues in far west Texas. Previously, she reported on state politics for KTOO Public Media in Alaska and various outlets in Washington State.
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