by Carole Baskin, founder, Big Cat Rescue
In “Joe Exotic” gets 22 years in a cage for murder plot, reporting how Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic and formerly known as Joseph Schreibvogel, age 57, came to be serving a possible life sentence in federal prison for plotting to kill me, ANIMALS 24-7 recounted that, “The FBI investigation [leading to his conviction] 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.”
The full story goes back further than that, and reveals a great deal more about exotic wildlife trafficking in the U.S., many of the key participants, and why exactly Joe Exotic wanted to kill me, after Big Cat Rescue exposed many of his dealings, sued him successfully for misusing the Big Cat Rescue name, and put liens on his property.
Lacey Act violations alleged in 2015
Back in 2015, Joe Exotic took animals from Yogi & Friends in Louisiana. WildCat Conservation Legal Aid Society executive director Carney Anne Nassar believed there was something about the transaction that violated the Lacey Act, the federal law governing interstate wildlife transactions.
Nassar wrote it up and turned it over to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service agent Matt Bryant. But it is hard to build a case that can be prosecuted unless there is an inside whistleblower, and as there was none yet, her allegations apparently did not advance.
In 2018 Jeff Lowe, who bought the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park from “Joe Exotic,” put former International Wildlife Center and Jungle Paradise Zoo owner James Garretson up to calling me to find out if I would pay him to leave the Greater Wynnewood facility, also known as the G.W. Zoo.
“Call for dirt on Joe”
I did not take the call, but noted it was from an out-of-state area code. A few minutes later, another voicemail was left, telling me to call the first number for “dirt on Joe.”
I did not call either number. My husband Howie gave both numbers to our attorney, who turned them over to the federal prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor knew about the investigation initiated by Nassar and turned the numbers over to Matt Bryant.
When Matt Bryant called the first number, he got longtime wildlife exhibitor James Garretson, and presumably started asking about wildlife trafficking. In the course of the conversation, almost as an aside, I think, Bryant asked if Garretson ever heard Joe Exotic threaten to kill me. James revealed that he had heard Joe Exotic had paid Jeff Lowe’s associate Frank Allen Glover $3,000 to come to Florida and kill me.
James Garretson had been part of the scheme, as he helped Glover, a convicted felon, to get fake identification in Texas so that he could travel to Florida.
That’s when James Garretson agreed to wear a wire and introduce an FBI agent to Joe Exotic as a better option as a hit man.
Much more came to light during the March/April 2019 murder-for-hire trial that eventually followed.
I testified on March 27, 2019. Prosecutor Amanda Green would ask a question, usually just needing a yes or no answer, but I took the opportunity to explain all the background that I thought the jury would need to make a decision.
I had to explain why cub petting is always cruel, how it hurts real conservation, why breeding white tigers and ligers is cruel, and why playing with cubs might seem adorable, but ends in them being killed, speed-bred to death or ending up in the illegal trade as pets and parts.
Not just a feud
I needed to combat any idea that this was just a feud between two people with different opinions. My answers had to be relevant to Green’s questions, and I didn’t know how much she would ask, so I had to cram in as much as made sense.
The judge called me on the carpet four times for giving so much detail, but later I thought of much more that I wished I had added.
Joe Exotic’s attorney asked if we have visitors at Big Cat Rescue, if they pay to visit, the kinds of tours we offer, and then finished by saying, “So in most ways your place is just like Joe’s place,” to which I said, “No. This is the extent to which we are anything alike!”
Joe Exotic’s attorney was not expecting that and did not go there again. But he did try to trick me into saying that Joe Exotic is representative to me of all the bad guys, just like I’m representative to Joe Exotic of all animal rights advocates. I was not about to let him get away with that. I explained that I believe anyone who would rip cubs from their mothers, use them as pay-to-play props, and then send them to God knows where is a bad person, but that I was not confusing Joe with any of his cronies.
“Joe was having conniptions”
I made a point of not looking at Joe, though he was directly in my line of sight, and was having conniptions every time I opened my mouth. I accidentally looked at him once and his face was so contorted in anger and frustration that I thought I was going to lose my train of thought. I had to really try hard not to make that mistake again because I didn’t think I could stay on track.
The witness instructions said not to look at or address the jury either, but the prosecutor and her team met with me at the end of the day and told me I’d done a great job on the stand. They appreciated that I’d been able to describe the life of the cubs and their mothers, and what happens to them after they are no longer profitable.
They said the jury physically jumped, gasped aloud and winced at some of Joe’s threats where he was shooting at me in effigy on video. I have seen those videos so many times that I don’t jump any more.
USDA never saw half of Joe’s cats?
The testimony continued with Bonnie Sue Boon, DVM, who was Joe Exotic’s USDA inspector the last two years that he ran the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. Boon claimed to have reviewed all of his transfers and his animal census, but said he had 100 cats. His employees all said he had 180-200 big cats, so apparently she never saw half of them.
Beth Corley, who previously ran a traveling tiger show as Corley’s Exotic Animal Rescue, based out of the G.W. Exotic Animal Park, testified next. We had sued Corley, along with Joe Exotic’s road show, back in 2011. We dropped her from the case later because she parted company with Joe Exotic in 2011.
Corley testified that she let Joe keep using and renewing her USDA license up until August 2018 to keep Big Cat Rescue from taking the cats, which is apparently what Joe was telling her we would do. Corley cancelled her license in 2018, due to all that was going on with Joe, and after learning that he was illegally using her license to sell cats to other people.
When asked how she felt about Joe Exotic having used the name “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment,” she said she hated that he was misleading people that way.
Why are white lions worth $15,000 but a golden tiger only $1,000?
Lisa Sparks cried through her entire testimony. She met Joe on the 2017 campaign trail, she explained, when he was a Libertarian candidate for Oklahoma governor. She offered to post his bail and have him come live with her when he was arrested in September 2018.
Joe Exotic told Sparks that he just wanted his truck, equipment, and 110 cats back from Jeff Lowe, according to her testimony, but she noted that he assigned $361,000 in value to the cats and she began to question how rescued animals had a monetary value, and why white lions were worth $15,000, but a golden tiger only $1,000.
Eventually Sparks downloaded all of the photos, emails and texts on Joe Exotic’s two cell phones to her computer. What she saw caused her to contact law enforcement.
Witness Marcia Davis testified that she met Joe in 2015 after losing her son. She and her husband did odd jobs around the G.W. Zoo and helped to rebuild the studio and alligator area after the zoo had a fire.
In June 2018, Davis testified, she helped John Finlay transport animals, on Joe’s behalf, to Branson’s Wild World in Branson, Missouri. They took servals, tigers, and lions, among other kinds of animals. Davis testified that the people at Branson’s gave Finlay’s girlfriend Jonnie and Finlay himself $5,000 in cash, that they counted in front of her. Later she saw John Finlay give the entire package of cash to Joe.
Marcia also testified that she and her husband later drove two tiger cubs to California. She was paid $800 for the gas money for the trip.
FBI didn’t take threats seriously, at first
Andy Farabow, the FBI agent brought in by special agent Matt Bryant in February 2017 to review Joe’s online threats against me, testified that he decided then that the threats did not warrant any action.
In September 2017, however, Bryant updated Farabow about Garretson having become an informant. On November 6, 2017, after outfitting Garretson to record conversations, Bryant and Farabow learned that Joe Exotic had hired Frank Allen Glover to kill me, and that Glover had travelled to Dallas to obtain a fake ID from Smith Electric Sign.
On November 8, 2017, Farabow testified, Garretson recorded a conversation with Glover saying he was supposed to take a Greyhound bus to Tampa on November 17, nine days later.
“Goodbye” prostitute & “burner” phones
In order to make sure Glover didn’t leave without letting Garretson know, Farabow said, Garretson promised to provide a “goodbye” prostitute for him. The FBI got a warrant to ping Glover’s phone so they could track him. It would ping every 15 minutes, so long as the phone was on.
Garretson was also able to record conversations showing that Jeff Lowe knew about the murder-for-hire plot, and that he was clearly in on it, Farabow testified. The FBI prepared to be in position to swoop in and arrest Glover and Joe Exotic, with two bus stations staked out.
On November 16, 2017, however, according to Farabow, Garretson said Glover had decided to go to South Carolina instead. The FBI had no idea that Joe Exotic had paid Glover $3,000, taken his phone, and given him two “burner” phones. They would not learn that until July 13, 2018.
Big cats in hotel rooms
That’s when they learned Joe had shipped Glover’s pinging phone to Jeff Lowe, but it wasn’t pinging because Joe had told Lowe not to turn it on yet.
The defense testified that Lowe had been arrested on November 16, 2017 on wildlife charges related to having big cats in a residential neighborhood for pay-to-play sessions, and taking them in baggage into hotel rooms for the same purpose.
Since Glover’s whereabouts and activities were unknown to all, including Joe Exotic, the FBI had Garretson suggest his “friend,” an undercover agent known to all as Mark, as a substitute.
Joe Exotic met with Mark on December 8, 2017, and told him he was trying to raise the money to pay him. Joe Exotic was also, as we later discovered, still texting and calling Glover, presumably trying to get him to get killing me done. Mark told Joe he’d need a gun, two “burner” phones, and a down payment on the job.
“Wait for spring break”
Joe kept delaying payment to Mark, saying he needed to wait until spring break when there would be lots of cubs and paying guests.
This went on until March 28, 2018, during the same time that Joe Exotic was distracted with his unrealistic gubernatorial race.
Garretson and Joe Exotic had a breakup on March 28, 2018, according to the trial testimony, that left Joe with no way to contact Mark.
Since the FBI could not pursue that route, and thought Glover was still in Wynnewood, they used the time to start investigating people who might have knowledge of Joe’s murder-for-hire attempts. These people included Jackie Thompson and Ashley Webster, who had both called me, saying Joe had tried to hire them or people they knew to kill me.
$100,000 kickback offer
In May 2018, according to the trial testimony, Lowe told Garretson he would pay him $100,000 if he could get me to buy the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park from him for $500,000. That is when he tried to call and text me and left the message that I never returned.
On June 5, 2018, Lowe demanded immunity to talk to the FBI and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Lowe turned over Glover’s phone, that Joe had mailed to him in Las Vegas, Nevada, as Glover’s alibi to be turned on while he was killing me in Tampa. They met under Rule 11, which provides that testimony by an informant will not be used against the informant, except under extreme circumstances.
In July 2018 Glover met with Farabow and turned over the two phones he had.
Information extracted from the phones showed that on November 25, 2017, Joe had screen-captured a dozen or so photos of me, the Big Cat Rescue logo, and the sanctuary address so Glover would know who and where I was. Glover reported he was to hide in the trees along the Upper Tampa Bay Trail and shoot me from a distance as I biked to or from work.
Joe took Glover out target practicing to be sure he could do it.
Farabow testified that Robert Engessor of Jungle Safari in Trenton, Florida, a frequent purchaser of cubs from Joe Exotic, bought cubs from him on November 22, 2017, in Kokomo, Indiana. Farabow interviewed Engessor and determined that sale is what gave Joe the cash to hire Glover.
In other recorded calls Joe Exotic admitted that he had shot five tigers, one of the wildlife crimes for which he was eventually convicted.
From big cat show to jet ski rental
On trial day three James Garretson took the stand. Garretson testified that did not remember me being the one to run him and his former Jungle Paradise Zoo out of Florida in 2007.
Garretson said he had known Joe Exotic for 20 years, beginning when he had lions at his International Wildlife Center near Dallas. When the laws in Texas changed, Garretson moved his cats to Joe’s facility in Oklahoma.
From 1997 to 2007, Garretson had a traveling cub petting show, like Joe’s. I think he was in Florida from 2007 to 2009, and then moved to Ardmore, Oklahoma with 13 tigers.
In 2011 Garretson sent his cats to someone in Indiana. He invested in a strip club, and then later in other bars, and later still later ran a jet ski rental business on the beach in Marathon Key, Florida.
In 2016, flush with cash from tourism, Garretson bought two tigers from Joe Exotic for $5,000, he testified. His girlfriend got a USDA exhibitor’s license, because Garretson’s own license had been revoked, and they began building cages in Ardmore.
Garretson invested about $12,000 in a pizza business at the G.W. Zoo, he testified, with the understanding that he, Lowe, and Joe would split proceeds, but no proceeds ever were split, and he demanded repayment. Joe gave him a check for $5,000 and two tigers.
Garretson said all of Joe’s transfer forms were marked as “donation,” even though he had paid for the cats. Garretson testified that in 25 years of involvement with tiger dealers, he had never seen anyone check anything other than “donation” to describe a transaction, regardless of the amount of money changing hands.
Garretson described several similar deals, involving tigers and a lemur.
If Joe Exotic had settled with us after we sued him for using the Big Cat Rescue name, and had just agreed to not breed cubs and not offer cub handling, he might still be running his zoo.
Instead, Joe Exotic will spend the next 22 years in a federal penitentiary, where––as Jeff Lowe told media––the only way he will ever own an animal again will be if a cockroach invades his cell.