‘Joe Exotic’s Prison Sentence Was Just Reduced By One Year

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·10 min read
‘Joe Exotic’s Prison Sentence Was Just Reduced By One Year
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Netflix’s true crime documentary series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness became an instant hit back in 2020, thanks to the wild true story of Joe Exotic, the once self-proclaimed "Tiger King" of Wynnewood, Oklahoma.

After growing up on a farm in Kansas, Joe (whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage) moved to Florida for physical rehabilitation after a car accident and there discovered his love of big cats—notably tigers and lions—and other exotic animals. As an adult, he opened the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma (also referred to as the G.W. Zoo in Tiger King), with what he claimed to be "the largest tiger collection in America."

Because Joe Exotic bred tiger cubs and allowed zoo guests to pay for cub petting experiences, he soon gained some critics—most notably Carole Baskin, owner of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa. Their years-long feud involved copyright infringement lawsuits, salacious murder and animal abuse allegations, and charges of arson. Eventually, it all came to head in an attempted murder-for-hire plot that definitely didn't go as planned.

The show's second season picked up right where the first left off, while the upcoming Peacock series Joe vs. Carole is a scripted version of what really happened between the two. But a lot more has gone down since then. Here's everything you need to know about where Joe Exotic is now:

Where is Joe Exotic from Tiger King now?

Yes, Joe is alive—and his 22-year prison sentence was just reduced to 21 years, the Associated Press reported. Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that Joe's prison term for attempting to pay a hitman (who was actually an undercover FBI agent) $10,000 to murder animal rights activist Carole Baskin in November 2017 was too long.

Flash forward to Jan. 2022, and a judge took one year off of Joe's sentence. In court, Joe asked the judge to show leniency, as he has been diagnosed with stage-one prostate cancer. “Please don’t make me die in prison waiting for a chance to be free,” he said.

Carole and her husband Howard Baskin also appeared in court. Carole explained to the judge that she's still afraid Joe could threaten her: “He continues to harbor intense feelings of ill will toward me,” she said, per AP News. She added that she still receives “vile, abusive and threatening communications” even though Joe is in prison, and said she thinks he's an even bigger threat to her now that he has a large base of supporters who watched Tiger King.

Meanwhile, Joe's attorney Amy Hanna told the judge about Joe's cancer diagnosis, which will require up to two months of radiation treatment. She said a long prison sentence would be a “death sentence for Joe that he doesn’t deserve.”

After the judge's decision, another of Joe's attorneys told CNN that "we are unsatisfied with the court's decision and will appeal. The main issues will be addressed in the Motion for New Trial."

Joe started serving his sentence in Fort Worth, Texas, but was transferred to a medical facility in North Carolina for a while after his diagnosis, per Entertainment Weekly. The same attorney told CNN he believes Joe will be moved back to North Carolina soon.

Joe was originally found guilty of 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, according to the New York Times.

Recently, Joe reached out to his 371,000 followers on Instagram, inviting them to send him emails in prison. "You all will still have to send me letters, but this will let me answer everyone personally, even international fans," he explained. "Stay strong Joe," one user commented. In another post, Joe asked his husband Dillon Passage for a divorce.

Joe Exotic also filed a $94 million lawsuit from behind bars.

In a lawsuit filed on March 17, 2020, the former zookeeper demanded a combined $94 million from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, his former business partner Jeff Lowe, and several former colleagues. Joe Exotic cited 14 separate counts, including perjury, false arrest, and mental anguish, against the "Defendants" in his pro se prisoner civil rights complaint.

However, Joe eventually dropped the lawsuit in Aug. 2020, according to The Oklahoman. "Plaintiff will assert his claims, if Maldonado-Passage deems it appropriate, in a separate action in the future," attorney Jarrod Stevenson told the court.

What exactly were Joe Exotic's "wildlife crimes"?

A 2011 undercover investigation by the Humane Society found that tigers were beaten and whipped during training at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. (An investigator worked there as an animal caretaker for four months, per the organization's report.) Visitors were also bitten and scratched by the cubs that were too old to be around humans, the report stated, and baby tigers that had not even opened their eyes yet were passed around to visitors, which caused 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, told the New York Times in an email at the time of Joe's sentencing. "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."

There's a lot more to Joe than what you see on Netflix's Tiger King.

"The documentary did a really good job of showing who Joe is right now," JP Wilson, a friend of Joe Exotic's, told Women's Health. That's not who Wilson first met and worked with as a magician. "In the beginning, Joe was definitely very different, in his demeanor and personality. He became more wild, more exotic over the years," Wilson says.

The G.W. Zoo also grew as Joe Exotic took in more big cats and wild animals. "Every animal in the park he had rescued from bad situations," Wilson says. "There were monkeys at the park that literally grew up in somebody's closet."

What else is Joe Exotic known for today?

Well, everyone knew he had exotic animals, of course. If his moniker didn’t give it away, he also bought billboards all along I-35 between Dallas and Oklahoma City to advertise Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. The signs for the zoo show Joe snuggled up next to a tiger, with Joe sporting a mullet and an unbuttoned, loud-patterned shirt.

If that weren’t enough, the zoo’s gift shop sold Joe Exotic-branded products, including skin care, T-shirts, underwear, condoms, and lube—all products Joe proudly shows off to the producers of Tiger King. The zoo is now closed to the public, although who closed it and when is still up for debate, according to Men's Health.

Photo credit: NETFLIX
Photo credit: NETFLIX

Later, Joe opened a pizza restaurant called Zooters and a bar down the road from the zoo, called Safari Bar, per Texas Monthly. Both have since closed.

His shows, Joe Exotic TV and Joe Gone Wild, brought in millions of views, and he was even featured in shows on CNN, BBC, and CBS This Morning, according to the publication. In other words, Joe’s image was everywhere.

He became so well known that he ran for U.S. President as an Independent in 2016, per the New York Times, and for governor of Oklahoma in 2018, local news station Fox 25 reported.

A campaign video for his 2016 presidential run features him walking around a big cat enclosure, saying, "I am not wearing a suit. I am gay. I’ve had two boyfriends for most of my life... I am broke as sh*t. I have a judgement against me from a b*tch down there in Florida... And this is all paid for by the committee of Joe Exotic for America."

Joe obviously did not win either election.

Okay, so... what led to Joe Exotic's prison sentence?

For starters, not everyone agreed with Joe’s exotic zoo practices. Over a thousand miles away, animal activist Carole Baskin operated Big Cat Rescue, an animal sanctuary based in Tampa, Florida. As Tiger King shows, they disagreed about almost every animal rights issue despite having similar jobs, especially the ethics around breeding big cats and letting visitors pet cubs—both of which were essential to Joe’s business.

The "judgment against me" that Joe mentions in his campaign video refers to a $1 million civil lawsuit that Baskin filed against him—and won—for copyright infringement. Baskin's suit was in addition to her efforts to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act, an act that, if successful, would have forced Joe to shut down his business.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

After he lost the governor race, Joe became increasingly paranoid. "You could always read Joe. He didn’t have a poker face," Joshua Dial, Joe’s former campaign manager, said in the Tiger King docuseries.

"We knew something was going on. He was already a paranoid person…but the paranoia was not unfounded." As is shown in the documentary, Joe finding a microphone and antennae on the gift shop roof was just one of the many things that increased his anxiety.

A lot of Joe's paranoia also stemmed from the fact that he was was going broke, fast. For one, just feeding the animals was expensive. Tiger King shows how even giving the tigers mostly expired meat that Walmart donated still cost $3,000 per tiger, per year.

That's not counting all the other costs associated with caring for exotic creatures. Running for office didn't help Joe's financial situation, either. Jeff Lowe—a man who bought the G.W. Exotic Animal Park—accuses Joe of embezzling money from the park to fund his political campaigns.

Joe's paranoia, mixed with his financial desperation, eventually led to Joe allegedly paying $10,000 for a hitman to kill Baskin, the Associated Press reported. Because of Joe's financial straits, Tiger King mentions that he bartered over the price. Joe agreed to pay half the money upfront, and the other half after Baskin's death.

There was just one problem: That hitman was an undercover FBI agent. He recorded Joe saying, "Just like follow her into a mall parking lot and just cap her and drive off," which was played during his trial.

There is a possibility that Joe's conviction was a setup on the part of Jeff Lowe. Tiger King casts doubt on whether money was actually exchanged between Joe and the "hitman," or if Joe just talked about killing Baskin. There is a theory that Lowe, as well as his friends, might have orchestrated the trial as a way to protect themselves from being punished for their own crimes. "I personally don't believe Joe belongs in prison," Wilson told Women's Health. "I think he's made mistakes along the way, and I think he understands that."

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

However, Baskin is still convinced of Joe's guilt. "Because of his constant threats to kill me, I have found myself seeing every bystander as a potential threat," Baskin wrote in a statement regarding Joe's prison sentence in January 2020 on the Big Cat Rescue website. "...My daughter, my husband, my mother, my staff, and volunteers have all been in peril because of his obsession with seeing me dead."

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