An Oklahoma zookeeper has been arrested on charges of trying to hire two different people to kill a competing organization’s leader.
U.S Marshals arrested 55-year-old Joe Maldonado-Passage, who goes by “Joe Exotic,” Friday in Gulf Breeze, Florida. Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue CEO Carole Baskin was the target of his plot, according to Santa Rosa County deputies.
A federal grand jury in Oklahoma indicted him on two counts of murder-for-hire, Fox 13 News reports. Baskin addressed the arrest in a video uploaded to Facebook Friday evening. She said Joe Exotic’s threats are only a fraction of the threats she and her organization have received for working to end the mistreatment of animals at roadside zoos.
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“Because Big Cat Rescue has been a leader in working to stop what we view as abuse of big cats and we have been very effective in our work, I have received multiple death threats over the years, including at one point, a number of snakes placed in my mailbox,” Baskin said.
Joe Exotic had previously posted on social media about being “sick and tired” of Baskin. One video depicted him shooting a blow-up doll dressed as Baskin in the head and another of her hanging in effigy.
According to Baskin, Joe Exotic’s rivalry with her began years ago when Big Cat Rescue stepped in to warn malls that hosted his traveling exhibits about how he treats his animals. Malls began canceling his shows and in retaliation, he renamed his show to “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment” to trick the public into thinking there was an affiliation with the Tampa organization.
A lawsuit was filed against Joe Exotic in 2011 for using the organization’s intellectual property rights, Bay News 9 reports. A judge ordered a consent judgment in 2013 for more than $1 million but litigation has been ongoing.
Joe Exotic first inquired about hiring a hitman in July 2016, according to Fox 13, when he “repeatedly asked” someone to connect him with a person who would take payment to kill Baskin.
He offered to pay the person $3,000 in travel expenses to go from Oklahoma to Florida to commit the crime, according to ABC Action News. Thousands more were promised if he was successful, officials said.
He tried to find another hitman in November. That person connected him with an undercover FBI agent. Baskin was never injured, officials said.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, each count of murder-for-hire carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years. He could also be subject to three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine per count.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service assisted in the investigation.