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Former Zookeeper Sentenced to 22 Years in Murder-for-Hire Plot

An Oklahoma man who once ran a tiger petting zoo was sentenced Wednesday to 22 years in a federal prison for trying to hire a hit man to kill an animal-rights activist who had criticized the zoo’s treatment of animals and for killing five tiger cubs.

The man, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, 56, was convicted last April on two counts of murder-for-hire, eight counts of violating the Lacey Act for falsifying wildlife records and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Oklahoma said in a statement.

According to prosecutors, Mr. Maldonado-Passage, who ran G.W. Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Okla., paid a man $3,000 to go to Florida to kill Carole Baskin, the animal-rights activist, in November 2017. He promised to pay the man more money after she was dead, according to the Justice Department.

The next month, according to prosecutors, Mr. Maldonado-Passage — who is known as Joe Exotic and ran for president as an Independent in 2016 and for governor of Oklahoma in 2018 — met another man and arranged to have him kill Ms. Baskin. That man turned out to be an undercover F.B.I. agent, the Justice Department said.

Joseph Maldonado-Passage tried several times to hire someone to murder an animal-rights activist. On his final attempt he hired an undercover F.B.I. agent.Credit…Santa Rosa County Jail, via Associated Press

Ms. Baskin, who had earlier won a million-dollar civil judgment against Mr. Maldonado-Passage and runs Big Cat Rescue, a nonprofit, 69-acre, big cat sanctuary in Florida, said Wednesday that she had lived in fear because of Mr. Maldonado-Passage.

“The evidence showed that over the course of many years, he has tried to coerce others into killing me, and in the end, resorted to hiring others to kill me,” Ms. Baskin said in a video posted on the Big Cat Rescue website.

“Because of his constant threats to kill me, I have found myself seeing every bystander as a potential threat,” Ms. Baskin said. “My daughter, my husband, my mother, my staff and volunteers have all been in peril because of his obsession with seeing me dead.”

Mr. Maldonado-Passage, whose lawyers declined to comment on the sentence, said in a Facebook post that he maintained his innocence and planned to appeal.

“I was punished for taking advantage of my Constitutional Rights to not plead guilty to their very well orchestrated frame job of murder for hire,” Mr. Maldonado-Passage said. “They superseded my indictment with 18 wildlife charges using a dirty Garvin County cop and a confidential informant.”

Timothy J. Downing, the United States attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma, said in a statement on Wednesday, “We are thankful for the Court’s thoughtful consideration of the gravity of this murder-for-hire scheme, as well as the defendant’s egregious wildlife crimes in imposing a 22-year sentence.”

In 2011, the Humane Society conducted an investigation of Mr. Maldonado-Passage’s animal park. An investigator worked there for four months posing as an animal caretaker.

The investigation found that tigers were beaten and whipped during training. Visitors were bitten and scratched by the cubs that were considered to be too old to be around humans, the organization said, and tigers that had not opened their eyes yet were passed around to visitors, causing the animals trauma.

“The Humane Society of the United States has known for a long time about the horrific business that this man was running,” Kitty Block, the chief executive of the Humane Society, said in an email on Wednesday. “Having investigated and campaigned against his operation for years, it is a comfort to us to know that a man who caused all of that suffering and cruelty has been charged for his crimes.”

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