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‘Tiger King’ Joe Exotic resentenced to 21 years in Carole Baskin murder-for-hire case

Prosecutors say he tried to hire two different people — including an undercover FBI agent — to kill Baskin, who runs Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue.
"Tiger King" star Joe Exotic. A federal judge resentenced the former zookeeper — whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage — to 21 years in prison on Friday, rejecting Maldonado-Passage's pleas to free him from prison.
"Tiger King" star Joe Exotic. A federal judge resentenced the former zookeeper — whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage — to 21 years in prison on Friday, rejecting Maldonado-Passage's pleas to free him from prison. [ Netflix ]
Published Jan. 28|Updated Jan. 28

OKLAHOMA CITY — A federal judge resentenced Tiger King Joe Exotic to 21 years in prison Friday, reducing his punishment by just a year despite pleas from the former zookeeper for leniency as he begins treatment for early-stage cancer.

“Please don’t make me die in prison waiting for a chance to be free,” he told a federal judge who resentenced him on a murder-for-hire charge.

Joe Exotic — whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage — was convicted in a case involving animal welfare activist Carole Baskin of Tampa. Both were featured in Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.

Related: Hillsborough sheriff says tips are coming in ‘Tiger King’ missing millionaire case

Wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, Maldonado-Passage, 58, still had his trademark mullet hairstyle, but the bleach-blonde had faded to brown and gray.

Baskin and her husband, Howard Baskin, also attended the proceedings, and she said she was fearful that Maldonado-Passage could threaten her.

“He continues to harbor intense feelings of ill will toward me,” she told the judge.

Baskin said even with Maldonado-Passage in prison, she has continued to receive “vile, abusive and threatening communications” over the last two years. She told the judge she believes Maldonado-Passage poses an even more serious threat to her now that he has a larger group of supporters because of the popularity of the Netflix series.

Carole Baskin with Dutchess the tiger at Big Cat Rescue in 2020.
Carole Baskin with Dutchess the tiger at Big Cat Rescue in 2020. [ Courtesy of Carole Baskin ]

Maldonado-Passage’s attorneys told the judge their client is suffering from stage-one prostate cancer, along with a disease that compromises his immune system, making him particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Stage-one prostate cancer means it has been detected early and hasn’t spread. Maldonado-Passage previously said that he planned to delay treatment until after his resentencing. Federal officials have said Maldonado-Passage will need up to eight weeks of radiation treatments and would be unable to travel during the treatments.

Related: ‘Tiger King’ Joe Exotic says he has ‘aggressive cancer’

His attorney Amy Hanna told the judge he’s not receiving the proper medical care inside the federal prison system and that a lengthy prison sentence is a “death sentence for Joe that he doesn’t deserve.”

Prosecutors also told the judge Friday that Maldonado-Passage received a disciplinary write-up in September for being in possession of a contraband cellphone and unauthorized headphones that was not included in his pre-sentencing report. Palk added that Maldonado-Passage had four previous disciplinary write-ups, although he described those as “relatively minor and not violent.”

Friday’s court proceedings came about after a federal appeals court ruled last year that the prison term he’s serving on a murder-for-hire conviction should be shortened.

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Supporters packed the courtroom, some wearing animal-print masks and shirts that read “Free Joe Exotic.” His attorneys said they would appeal the resentencing and petition for a new trial.

John Phillips, an attorney for Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as "Tiger King" Joe Exotic, speaks to reporters on Friday outside the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City, after a judge reduced his sentence from 22 years to 21 years.
John Phillips, an attorney for Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as "Tiger King" Joe Exotic, speaks to reporters on Friday outside the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City, after a judge reduced his sentence from 22 years to 21 years. [ SEAN MURPHY | AP ]

“The defense submitted a series of attachments that showed excessive government involvement in the creation of the offense for which he’s been convicted,” attorney Molly Parmer told reporters after the hearing.

“We are going to continue our post-conviction litigation, but we did preview for the court the evidence we have through our post-conviction investigation.”

The former zookeeper was sentenced in January 2020 to 22 years in prison after he was convicted of trying to hire two different men to kill Baskin. A three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Maldonado-Passage that the court should have treated them as one conviction at sentencing because they both involved the same goal of killing Baskin, who runs a rescue sanctuary for big cats in Florida and had criticized Maldonado-Passage’s treatment of animals.

Related: Hillsborough detective on Don Lewis ‘Tiger King’ case finds Carole Baskin’s refusals ‘frustrating’

Prosecutors said Maldonado-Passage offered $10,000 to an undercover FBI agent to kill Baskin during a recorded December 2017 meeting. In the recording, he told the agent, “Just like follow her into a mall parking lot and just cap her and drive off.” Maldonado-Passage’s attorneys have said their client — who once operated a zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, about 65 miles (105 kilometers) south of Oklahoma City — wasn’t being serious.

In this Aug. 28, 2013, file photo, Joseph Maldonado answers a question during an interview at the zoo he runs in Wynnewood, Okla. A federal judge resentenced Maldonado, known as “Tiger King” Joe Exotic, to 21 years in prison on Friday, reducing his punishment by just a year despite pleas from the former zookeeper for leniency as he begins treatment for cancer.
In this Aug. 28, 2013, file photo, Joseph Maldonado answers a question during an interview at the zoo he runs in Wynnewood, Okla. A federal judge resentenced Maldonado, known as “Tiger King” Joe Exotic, to 21 years in prison on Friday, reducing his punishment by just a year despite pleas from the former zookeeper for leniency as he begins treatment for cancer. [ SUE OGROCKI | AP ]

Maldonado-Passage, who maintains his innocence, also was convicted of killing five tigers, selling tiger cubs and falsifying wildlife records.

Related: A year after ‘Tiger King’, what’s Carole Baskin up to? A Q&A with the Big Cat Rescue founder.

By JILL BLEED and SEAN MURPHY, Associated Press. Bleed reported from Little Rock, Arkansas.

This is a developing story. Stay with tampabay.com for updates.

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