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Criminal Defense Blog

The Crimes of The Tiger King

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

During this time of self-quarantine and general societal unrest, we have all been looking for something to talk about other than the news. We have now found it from an unlikely source with the netflix documentary, The Tiger King, starring Joe “Exotic” Maldonado-Passage, aka “The Tiger King”. It is certainly a docu-series that, with all of the bizarre story lines and characters, could be broken up into several different programs. But, for our viewing pleasure, it is all rolled into one show.

From our perspective the most interesting thing, of course, are the criminal charges that were ultimately brought against Joe. People who have watched the show know that he is now in prison, but it is not clear exactly for what. Of course, we know about the murder for hire plots. He was originally indicted for two separate murder for hire plots in violation of 18 U.S. Code 1958. Then, on September 5, 2018, a grand jury returned a new (superceding) indictment and added 19 counts of wildlife crimes. Since the series somewhat glosses over those allegations, we wanted to take a moment to explain those in a little more detail.

Joe Exotic was accused of hiring an unnamed person in November 2017 to murder “Jane Doe”, who we all now know is Carole Baskin, owner of Big Cat Rescue, in Florida. According to the indictment, Joe gave the unnamed person $3,000 to travel from Oklahoma to South Carolina and then to Florida to carry out the murder. He allegedly agreed to pay thousands more after the job was done. The indictment alleged that Joe caused the person to travel to Dallas to get fake identification for use in the plot. According to the indictment, the person traveled from Oklahoma to South Carolina on November 26, 2017.

In a second count, the September 5, 2018 indictment alleged that beginning in July 2016, Joe repeatedly asked a different unnamed person, who we now know is James Garretson, the former strip club owner, to find someone to murder Jane Doe in exchange for money. The second person put Joe in contact with an undercover FBI agent. Joe met with the undercover agent on December 8, 2017, to discuss details of murdering Jane Doe, aka Carole Baskin. These two murder for hire plots carry federal prison terms, somewhat surprisingly, of up to only 10 years on each count.

According to the superseding indictment, Joe shot and killed five tigers in October 2017 to make room for cage space for other big cats. Because tigers are an endangered species, these alleged killings violated the Endangered Species Act under 16 U.S. Code 1531-1544. He was also charged with violating the Endangered Species Act by selling and offering to sell tiger cubs in interstate commerce. These crimes are alleged to have taken place from November 16, 2016, to March 6, 2018.

The remaining wildlife counts alleged violations of the Lacey Act of 1900, 16 U.S. Code 3371-3378, which makes it a crime to falsify records of wildlife transactions in interstate commerce. According to these counts, Joe Exotic designated on delivery forms and Certificates of Veterinary Inspection that tigers, lions, and a baby lemur were being donated to the recipient or transported for exhibition only, when he knew that they were being sold in interstate commerce. One count alleged that he sold in interstate commerce a two-week-old lion cub.

Aside from the 10 year maximum sentences on the murder for hire plots, the endangered species act violations carried up to one-year in prison each, and the Lacey Act offenses carried up to five-years in prison, for a total maximum incarceration possibility of up to 69 years. He was ultimately convicted of 19 of the 21 counts. The result was a 22-year sentence, so some may say he got a fairly good deal.

All in all, this documentary is a fascinating real life portrayal of alleged crimes in progress. That type of behind the scenes, first-hand look is something viewers rarely get to see.