Sentenced on 17 counts, including soliciting murder of Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin
OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma––U.S. District Court Judge Scott Palk on January 23, 2020 sentenced self-styled entertainer “Joe Exotic” Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, 57, formerly known as Joe Schreibvogel, to serve 22 years in prison for having solicited the murder of Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin in 2018.
Claiming he was framed, “Joe Exotic” immediately declared via Facebook his intention to appeal both his sentence and his multiple convictions.
Convicted of the murder plot in April 2019, “Joe Exotic” was also convicted on nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act, by shotgunning five tigers in October 2017 and by illegally offering tiger cubs for sale between November 2016 and March 2018.
“Joe Exotic” was additionally convicted on eight counts of violating the Lacey Act by falsifying wildlife transaction records pertaining to the sale of tigers, lions, and a baby lemur.
Said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert J. Troester, who led the prosecution, “The self-described Tiger King was not above the law. Rather, the jury only needed a few hours of deliberation before finding him guilty. We are thankful for the jury’s careful attention, deliberation and verdict in this case.”
Offered FBI agent $10,000
The prosecution charged that “Joe Exotic” offered an undercover FBI agent $10,000 in December 2017 to kill Baskin. A 47-minute recording of the discussion between “Joe Exotic” and the FBI agent was played for the jury on March 29, 2019.
Allegedly suggested Maldonado-Passage, “Just, like, follow her into a mall parking lot and just cap her and drive off.”
$3,000 down payment
The FBI investigation began after “Joe Exotic” in November 2017 gave $3,000 to a worker at his Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, as a down payment on a contract to kill Baskin. The worker contacted the FBI instead.
Testifying in his own defense, “Joe Exotic” claimed he had never actually wanted Baskin to be killed.
Shot & hanged Baskin in videos
However, “Joe Exotic” had repeatedly threatened Baskin on social media, including by posting a video of him shooting a blow-up doll dressed to look like her, and posting an image of himself hanging Baskin in effigy, along with an effigy labeled “PETA.”
Baskin herself, PETA, and the Humane Society of the U.S. all issued statements exulting that “Joe Exotic” had been convicted, pointing toward their many past investigations and exposés of his activities involving exotic animals.
Other than local newspaper coverage, however, ANIMALS 24-7 in October 2002 produced the first exposé of “Joe Exotic,” and the first to link together what even then was a long and tangled history.
“World will be safer with this man behind bars”
“We’ve already succeeded in getting 39 tigers, three bears, two baboons, and two chimpanzees out of his hands and into reputable sanctuaries,” said PETA spokesperson Michelle Kretzer. “The world will be a safer place for all living beings with this man behind bars,” Kretzer added, “where he can no longer harm animals or animal advocates.”
Said Baskin, via Facebook, “I am grateful that justice was served and Joe Schreibvogel-Maldonado-Passage will serve time in prison and no longer present a threat either to me or to his former big cats. 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 emphasized.
“Cruel cub petting schemes”
“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, simply by checking the box on the USDA transfer form that says ‘donated’ instead of ‘sale’ and quietly paying cash for the animals,” Baskin charged.
“During the trial,” Baskin continued, “several big cat owners were specifically mentioned as people Passage had sold tigers to. We believe this illegal practice is common among cub breeders and exhibitors.”
Baskin named Bhagavan Antle, Tim Stark, Bill Meadows, Mario Tabraue, Kathy Stearns, Robert Engesser, Jeff Lowe and Omar Villareal as “some of the most notorious” of the exhibitors, but did not specifically name them in connection with illegal transactions.
Dade City’s Wild Things
There is, however, considerable on-the-record history linking “Joe Exotic” and Stearns, another longtime alleged wildlife exhibition scofflaw whose Dade City’s Wild Things was also a target of exposés by the Baskins.
The Baskins had been critical of Dade City’s Wild Things practically since it opened in 2007, during which time it was cited more than 40 times for alleged Animal Welfare Act violations.
Dade City’s Wild Things nonetheless continued to offer a swim-with-tigers attraction while appealing an administrative judge’s order to stop it, as a hazard to both the humans and the tigers involved.
Tigers moved to Oklahoma
In July 2017 a federal judge ordered Dade City’s Wild Things “not to remove or relocate any of its 22 tigers,” reported Tampa Bay Times staff writer Tracey McManus, pending resolution of a PETA lawsuit alleging violations of the Endangered Species Act.
Only days later, McManus continued, “19 of the Dade City tigers pulled into the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma after a 1,200-mile journey on a cattle truck. G.W. Exotic Animal Park entertainment director Joe Maldonado [“Joe Exotic”] confirmed 19 of Stearns’ tigers arrived at his facility. He said a pregnant tiger gave birth during the haul, and all three cubs died. He did not know the whereabouts of the other three tigers cited in the court order.”
“Not isolated act of crazy bad apple”
Said Baskin in a September 2018 videotaped statement, after the charges of which “Joe Exotic” has now been convicted were first filed, “It is important to understand that this is not the isolated act of one crazy bad apple. A significant part of our mission has been to stop 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.
“Because Big Cat Rescue has been a leader in working to stop what we view as abuse of big cats and been very effective in our work,” Baskin explained then, “I have received multiple death threats over the years, including at one point a number of snakes placed in my mailbox.”
“Big Cat Rescue Entertainment”
“Maldonado ran, in our view,” Baskin continued, “one of the most notorious cub-petting roadside zoos in the country. Years ago he also operated a traveling exhibit that would bring cubs to malls throughout the Midwest and Southwest. When Big Cat Rescue educated the malls about the miserable life this created for the cubs, and the malls started cancelling Maldonado’s traveling exhibit, Maldonado retaliated by renaming his traveling show ‘Big Cat Rescue Entertainment’ in order to confuse the public into thinking the show was operated by Big Cat Rescue.
“In 2011,” Baskin recounted, “Big Cat Rescue sued for violations of its intellectual property rights, and in 2013 was granted a consent judgment for over $1 million.”
Claimed bankruptcy after losing trademark case
The trademark violation case could have put “Joe Exotic” out of the wildlife exhibition business, had they ever been able to collect a federal court judgement against him.
Instead, reported Andrew Knittle of The Oklahoman, “‘Joe Exotic’ filed for bankruptcy protection. Joe Schreibvogel, who also goes by the names Aarron Alex and Cody Ryan,” not mentioned in the federal solicitation-of-murder-for-hire indictment, “listed debts totaling $1.2 million, most of which are traceable to the judgment handed down by a judge in Florida,” while claiming as assets only several vehicles and 43 tigers and five black bears, said to be “personal property worth an ‘unknown’ sum of money.”
Candidate & Trump supporter
Maldonado-Passage meanwhile made an abortive run for U.S. President on the Oklahoma state ballot in 2016, and then was a Libertarian candidate for Oklahoma governor in 2018.
A video announcing his presidential candidacy emphasized that he was openly gay, broke, and had a history of drug use.
Sarah Stewart of KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City in November 2015 reported that she “caught up with Maldonado and his husband,” the late Travis Maldonado, “at Will Rogers World Airport as they were flying out to Ohio” to attend a Donald Trump rally.
“Although he’s never held public office,” Stewart observed, “he says he’s always been involved in politics and was a police chief at one point in time.”
Never a cop
Baskin’s husband, attorney Howard Baskin, in 2011 investigated the claim that “Joe Exotic” was ever a police chief, or even a police officer.
“Joe says he is a former police chief in Colony, Texas,” Howard Baskin summarized.
“The Colony website,” Howard Baskin found, “contains the list of past and present police chiefs,” six in all at that time, none of whom were “Joe Exotic.”
“The policeman we spoke with by phone at The Colony police department advised that Joe Schreibvogel was never an officer there,” Howard Baskin wrote.
Never a rock star, either
“Joe Exotic” was also never a rock star, or indeed a singing star of any sort, but he has posed as such.
“Informant information,” Carole Baskin posted to Facebook on January 18, 2018, “indicates he has paid singer Vince Johnson to sing some if not all of the songs” that “Joe Exotic” claimed to have written and recorded.
“Then Joe makes a video lip syncing the song and claims it is him singing,” Baskin said.
Partner shot himself
Travis Maldonado, 23, on October 6, 2017 shot himself at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park.
Reported The Oklahoman, “Travis Maldonado had a marijuana-smoking pipe in his pants pocket and a small amount of marijuana on him when he apparently shot himself in the head,” trying to demonstrate that a gun would not fire, even with a bullet in the chamber, if the magazine was out.
Maldonado died almost 20 years to the day after the death of Garold Schreibvogel, brother of “Joe Exotic.” The two operated an exotic pet store called Super Pet in Arlington, Texas, until Garold was killed in an October 1997 truck crash.
“Joe Exotic,” as Joe Schreibvogel, was also identified by the Dallas Morning News as co-operator, with a man named Jim Claytor, of a wildlife rescue service called Nature’s Hope.
In February 1999, police in Plano, Texas, found 69 dead emus and about 160 others cannibalizing their remains on the property of housing developer and former emu speculator Kuo-Wei Lee.
Schreibvogel and Claytor took possession of the survivors and hauled most of them to a ranch about 50 miles away, to await relocation to permanent sanctuary. When they could not catch all of the emus, Schreibvogel and Claytor allegedly shot at least six of them.
SPCA of Texas chief cruelty investigator Bobby French videotaped the shootings, but the Ellis County grand jury refused to indict Schreibvogel and Claytor. Schreibvogel then filed a defamation suit against the SPCA of Texas, claiming that their release of the video to news media had hurt sales at Super Pet.
Moved from Texas to Oklahoma
Schreibvogel sold Super Pet soon afterward, and in October 1999 opened the G.W. Exotic Animal Foundation, the original name of the animal exhibition facility in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, in his brother’s memory.
Within two years Schreibvogel ran into trouble with the Oklahoma Wildlife Department for allegedly operating unsafe road shows.
“We know we have some young kids being put in enclosures with large animals,” charged Oklahoma assistant attorney general Elizabeth Sharrock in July 2002, but Schreibvogel won a temporary injunction that allowed the road shows to continue.
Sharrock, a Great Dane rescuer, left public office in 2005. Schreibvogel was still doing road shows.
23 dead tiger cubs in seven months
Noted Bob Ducette of The Oklahoman, “The animal park has been a destination of choice for state officials and other entities needing a place to house animals who don’t normally live in Oklahoma.”
But that relationship did not protect “Joe Exotic” for much longer.
McManus of The Oklahoman recalled that “In 2006, the USDA suspended G.W. Exotic’s exhibitor’s license and ordered a $25,000 fine to settle repeated violations, including failure to provide animals clean water, failure to provide structurally sound facilities and not having trained employees. The federal agency in 2010 opened an investigation into the deaths of 23 tiger cubs over a seven-month period under Maldonado’s care, and in 2013 investigated the deaths of two others.”