'Murder for hire' plot against Tampa's Big Cat Rescue CEO leads to arrest of Oklahoma candidate for governor

Joseph Maldonado-Passage, 55, who was arrested Friday on two counts of paying two different people to murder Carole Baskin, the CEO of Tampa's Big Cat Rescue, an animal sanctuary.
Joseph Maldonado-Passage, 55, who was arrested Friday on two counts of paying two different people to murder Carole Baskin, the CEO of Tampa's Big Cat Rescue, an animal sanctuary.
Published Sept. 8, 2018

A years-long feud between an Oklahoma zookeeper and a Tampa conservationist ended with the zookeeper in handcuffs Friday after federal agents foiled his alleged murder-for-hire scheme.

Joseph "Joe Exotic" Maldonado-Passage, 55, was indicted by a federal grand jury and arrested Friday in Gulf Breeze for allegedly offering to pay two different people to murder Carole Baskin, the CEO of Tampa's Big Cat Rescue, an animal sanctuary.

The arrest illuminates how the threat of violence stalks a mostly-unseen but continual clash between animal exhibitors and those seeking to protect endangered species like big cats.

Baskin warned that Maldonado-Passage's arrest was not "an isolated act of one crazy bad apple."

"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, I have received multiple death threats over the years," Baskin said in a Facebook Live on Friday.

Prior examples of intimidation by other suspects, she told the Tampa Bay Times on Saturday, have included someone mailing her cornstarch during the anthrax scare of 2001 and individuals stuffing her mailbox with spiders and snakes.

"I quit opening the mail," Baskin said. "They now bring it to the front door."

According to the indictment, which was filed Wednesday, Maldonado-Passage paid one unnamed individual $3,000 in November 2017 to travel to Florida and murder "Jane Doe" — Baskin — with the promise of more cash later. In December 2017, Maldonado-Passage also allegedly offered to pay an undercover FBI agent to murder Baskin, who was not harmed in either scheme.

Read the indictment here.

The charges against Maldonado-Passage cap a long simmering feud between Big Cat Rescue and Maldonado-Passage's tiger petting zoos, Baskin said Saturday. For years, Big Cat Rescue, which houses rare wildcats as one of the few dozen facilities accredited by the renowned Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, spoke out against Maldonado-Passage's businesses.

The efforts of Baskin's organization to expose what they saw as harsh treatment of young tigers enraged Maldonado-Passage, Baskin said. When Maldonado-Passage's clients stopped booking his traveling zoo around 2010 because of Big Cat Rescue's outreach efforts, he "retaliated" against Baskin's organization by naming his traveling petting zoo "Big Cat Rescue Entertainment," Baskin said.

In 2011, Big Cat Rescue sued Maldonado-Passage, and in 2013, it won a judgment worth more than $1 million, Baskin said. The litigation is ongoing, because Big Cat Rescue has yet to collect the judgment, Baskin said.

In the years following their protracted legal battle, Maldonado-Passage also made a number of threats against Baskin online, the indictment said. In a Facebook Live Friday night, Baskin said that Maldonado-Passage produced a video of him shooting a blow-up doll in the head that was dressed as Baskin. He made another image of hanging Baskin in effigy.

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Although Baskin said Saturday she never corresponded with Maldonado-Passage, federal agents warned her of the threat against her life last year.

Baskin is a soldier in a war that pits animal rights activists like herself against poachers in Asia and U.S. exhibitors. As wild tigers in Asia continue to creep toward extinction, the captive tiger population in the United States continues to climb.

More than 10,000 big cats are thought to be living in captivity in America, but exact numbers are difficult to know because some states have no laws addressing the issue. No practice is fueling the overpopulation of captive tigers faster than the burgeoning industry of "cub encounters" — roadside attractions where tourists pay big money to cuddle with cats.

It's a business model that is prone to abuse and drawn opposition from groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Baskin has championed the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would ban the private ownership of big cats as pets. Baskin said such a law would make the conservation arena safer for animals and humans, as bad actors would no longer be able to duck federal oversight.

"This shouldn't happen," Baskin said. "I shouldn't be out there taking the brunt of this alone, because the (United States Department of Agriculture) knows that these people are breaking the law."

Maldonado-Passage's arrest comes during a turbulent year for the zookeeper. In October of last year, Maldonado's husband, Travis, died from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head at Maldonado's Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. Two months later, Maldonado married another man, Dillon Passage, according to local media reports.

This January Maldonado broke a shoulder blade, two vertebrae in his neck and his right femur in a car accident after running a stop sign, according to local media reports.

And in June, he lost his long shot bid to be governor of Oklahoma, finishing third in a three-person race for the Libertarian nomination. He ran on a platform that supported rights for abortion, the LGBTQ community and unfettered gun ownership.

Attempts to contact Maldonado were unsuccessful Saturday.

Federal records didn't list an attorney for Maldonado-Passage as of Saturday. He made his initial appearance before a U.S. Magistrate Judge in the Pensacola Division of the Northern District of Florida, but further proceedings will be held in Oklahoma, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

If found guilty of both counts of hiring a person to commit murder, Maldonado-Passage faces up to 20 years in prison.

Watch Baskin's Facebook Live from Friday here:

Times staff writer Tracey McManus contributed to this story. Information from Times wires was used in this report.