'Joe Exotic,' Oklahoma zookeeper who ran for governor, is convicted in murder-for-hire plot

A zookeeper and former Libertarian candidate for governor of Oklahoma was convicted by a federal jury on Tuesday of trying to arrange the murder of a Florida sanctuary founder who'd criticized his treatment of animals.

Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, 56, commonly known as "Joe Exotic," was also convicted of killing five tigers in October 2017, as well as selling and offering to sell tiger cubs between November 2016 and March 2018.

U.S. District Judge Scott Palk did not set a sentencing date for Maldonado-Passage, who could face more than 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors said Maldonado-Passage offered an undercover FBI agent $10,000 in December 2017 to kill Carole Baskin, the founder and CEO of the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary outside Tampa. The meeting was recorded and played for the jury last week.

In the recording, Maldonado-Passage told the agent: "Just, like, follow her into a mall parking lot and just cap her and drive off."

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Prosecutors said that a month earlier, in November 2017, Maldonado-Passage gave a worker at his private zoo in Wynnewood, Okla., $3,000 as a down payment to kill Baskin.

Maldonado-Passage, testifying in his own defense on Monday, said that although disagreements with Baskin had spilled over into his social media posts, he never truly wanted her dead.

In a statement, Baskin said she was "grateful that justice was served and [Maldonado-Passage] hopefully will serve time in prison and no longer present a threat either to me or to his former big cats.

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"While media attention regarding this trial has primarily focused on the murder-for-hire charges, there is a much larger significance to the wildlife charges. For years, a network of big cat owners like Passage who have engaged in cruel cub petting schemes and the exhibition of big cats have also been engaging in the illegal sale of tigers and other animals back and forth among themselves simply by checking the box on the USDA transfer form that says “donated” instead of “sale” and quietly paying cash for the animals.

Baskin added, "I hope that the detailed evidence of these illegal transfers developed for this trial will lead to more prosecutions to protect captive big cats in this country from this illegal trade."

Known for his blond mullet and expletive-laden rants on YouTube, Maldonado-Passage finished third in a three-way Libertarian primary in 2018. Maldonado-Passage also appeared on John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight" when he was a 2016 write-in candidate for president.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.