Jurors convicted former private zoo owner Joseph Maldonado-Passage, known as “Joe Exotic,” Tuesday afternoon on two murder-for-hire charges. He pleaded not guilty to arranging the murder of his chief critic, Carole Baskin, twice. The 56-year-old now faces more than twenty years in prison.
The trial began March 25, and government prosecutors said Joe Exotic paid his employee $3,000 to carry out the act in November of 2017, and then offered $10,000 to an undercover FBI agent the following month. Both the employee and the agent testified for the prosecution, as did Baskin.
Baskin runs Big Cat Rescue in Florida, and she openly criticized Joe Exotic’s treatment of animals, particularly large cats. She attempted to stop him from bringing cubs to malls throughout the country, and he renamed his traveling show “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment,” in retaliation. Baskin then sued over intellectual property rights, winning a $1 million settlement that caused ongoing financial troubles for Joe Exotic.
Joe Exotic himself took the stand Monday. According to multiple media outlets, he admitted to threatening Baskin online, but denied plotting her murder. He told jurors he was framed in the first instance by the man who took over his zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. As for the second, Joe Exotic said he was not serious during his conversation with the FBI’s undercover hitman.
Attorneys delivered closing arguments Tuesday morning, and jurors returned to the courtroom to announce their conclusions that afternoon.
Joe Exotic was also convicted on seventeen federal wildlife crimes, including killing endangered species. He was originally indicted on nineteen, though two were dropped.
In a Facebook video posted shortly after the verdict announcement, Baskin continued her activism.
“While media attention regarding this trial has primarily focused on the murder-for-hire charges, there is a much larger significance to the wildlife charges,” Baskin said. “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.”
In addition to killing five tigers in October of 2017, Joe Exotic was found guilty of falsifying information involving the sale of tiger cubs and offering to sell tiger cubs— both of which go against the Endangered Species Act. The Lacey Act also makes it illegal to falsify records of wildlife transactions in interstate commerce. Joe Exotic claimed he was donating various species or simply transporting them for exhibition, when, in reality, he was making sales.
“I hope that the detailed evidence of these illegal transfers developed for this trial will lead to more prosecutions to protect captive big cats in this country from this illegal trade,” Baskin said.
Baskin listed Jeff Lowe, who now owns and operates The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park as a leading perpetrator of the same crimes as Joe Exotic.