A zookeeper who garnered viral fame for an outlandish political campaign has now been found guilty in a murder-for-hire plot in Oklahoma.
Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known by the nickname "Joe Exotic," was convicted by a federal jury on April 2 for his crimes. The charges pertained to an attempt to have a rival sanctuary owner, Carole Baskin, taken out by a hitman. The two had disagreed publicly and on social media over Maldonado-Passage's treatment of animals, according to local outlet KFOR.
Maldonado-Passage was also found guilty on a slew of wildlife charges. First Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert J. Troester described the specifics in a statement.
“The self-described Tiger King was not above the law,” said Troester, of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, according to KFOR. “Rather, the jury only needed a few hours of deliberation before finding him guilty of engaging in a murder-for-hire plot to kill a rival and violating federal laws intended to protect wildlife when he killed multiple tigers, sold tiger cubs and falsified wildlife records. We are thankful for the jury’s careful attention, deliberation and verdict in this case.”
Maldonado-Passage is believed to have discussed a payment of $3,000 to kill Baskin with a zoo employee. He was also accused of discussing the same killing with an undercover officer posing as a hitman. Some of the second conversation was recorded and presented as evidence at the trial.
He maintained his innocence throughout the trial, saying the first conversation didn't happen and that he was merely playing along with the second to gather information, according to KOCO, another Oklahoma City-based news organization.
The defense argued that Maldonado-Passage had been framed and was never serious about the killing.
Former park manager John Reinke, a friend of Maldonado-Passage's, was not entirely convinced by the jury's decision.
"Did Joe do wrong? Yeah, I’m sure he did wrong. He did sell cubs. He did transport cubs. The murder-for-hire thing? I don’t think it ever would have went this far unless someone pushed it," said Reinke to KFOR.
PETA has celebrated the conviction as a victory for justice.
“Joe Exotic has been on PETA's radar for years as a notorious animal abuser and as the primary supplier of big-cat cubs for the cruel cub-petting industry. The world will be a safer place for all living beings with this man behind bars, where he can no longer harm animals," the organization said in a statement, according to News 9 of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Maldonado-Passage had risen to unlikely fame after video of him campaigning for governor in 2018 attracted curious attention on social media. He became known through a series of foul-mouthed political videos he posted to YouTube. He had described his libertarian platform as, "All the rights for all the people all the time,” according to Fox 5 of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He finished third in a three-way Libertarian primary in 2018 and was lampooned on John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight, reports ABC News.
Maldonado-Passage's lawyers are not offering a comment on the verdict.
Maldonado-Passage potentially faces 10 years in prison for each murder-for-hire charge. For the wildlife violations, Maldonado-Passage potentially faces additional one to five years in prison and between $100,000 and $250,000 in fines for each charge. He will remain in police custody until he is sentenced.
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