WYNNEWOOD, Okla. — Joseph Maldonado-Passage seems made for reality TV.
The one-time Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate and former wildlife park owner, known to fans by the moniker “Joe Exotic,” is a self-described “gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet.” A tiger breeder, he had his own YouTube channel, JoeExoticTV, on which he used to post footage of his wild exploits.
His reality today is much different. Maldonado-Passage, 57, is currently serving a 22-year federal prison sentence for two counts of murder-for-hire, eight counts of falsifying wildlife records and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act.
According to federal prison records, Maldonado-Passage is currently housed at the Federal Medical Center Fort Worth.
Maldonado-Passage’s crimes are on full display in “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” a seven-episode limited series on Netflix that chronicles how Maldonado-Passage went from freedom in the wild to behind bars in a federal prison in Texas.
The streaming service describes the series as “a jaw-dropping true tale of con artists, polygamy, rivalry and revenge.” Netflix’s description of the documentary’s star is similar: A “mulleted, gun-toting polygamist and country western singer who presides over an Oklahoma roadside zoo.”
Watch Netflix’s trailer for “Tiger King” below.
“Charismatic but misguided, Joe and an unbelievable cast of characters including drug kingpins, conmen and cult leaders all share a passion for big cats, and the status and attention their dangerous menageries garner,” the description states. “But things take a dark turn when Carole Baskin, an animal activist and owner of a big cat sanctuary, threatens to put them out of business, stoking a rivalry that eventually leads to Joe’s arrest for a murder-for-hire plot, and reveals a twisted tale where the only thing more dangerous than a big cat is its owner.”
Maldonado-Passage is in prison for hiring someone to kill Baskin. The charges of falsifying records and violating the Endangered Species Act stem from his slaughtering of five tigers at his refuge.
Watch a “Joe Exotic Sizzle Reel” from Maldonado-Passage’s YouTube channel below. It may contain some graphic language.
‘Tiger King’s’ reception in the age of coronavirus
The documentary series has had remarkable success as Netflix viewers try to temporarily forget about the terrifying global coronavirus pandemic that, as of Friday afternoon, had sickened well over half a million people worldwide and killed more than 26,000.
Memes abound on social media, and everyone from celebrities like Kim Kardashian West to, well, average Joes, have weighed in on the craziness. Actor and musician Jared Leto hosted an online “Tiger King” watch party -- and dressed as “Joe Exotic” for the occasion.
Below are some of the other memes:
The Netflix documentary is not the first time the “Joe Exotic” case has garnered national attention. Baskin was the main subject of a podcast by Wondery for its series, “Over My Dead Body.”
More Hollywood fodder about Maldonado-Passage and Baskin is on the way. Vanity Fair reported that comedian and actress Kate McKinnon has signed up to star in and executive produce a limited series based on that podcast.
McKinnon is slated to portray Baskin.
Maldonado-Passage’s role has not yet been cast, though Vanity Fair’s article said this: “Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are thumb-wrestling to see whose agent gets to reach out about playing Joe Exotic, while David Spade is crafting a really, really long text to McKinnon about their shared SNL ties.”
Actor Dax Shepard also has thrown his hat into the ring.
“If I don’t get cast as Joe Exotic in the eventual biopic, Hollywood is broken,” Shepard tweeted.
Edward Norton replied: “Um, step aside, pal. You’re way too young and buff and you know it.”
Netflix U.S. also replied to Shepard’s tweet.
“I’m liking what I’m hearing,” the tweet said.
Buzzfeed News reported that the series’ creators are hinting at a possible second season.
“Tiger King” director Eric Goode told the Los Angeles Times that Maldonado-Passage is happy with the finished documentary and is “over the moon” about being a household name.
“Joe has called me quite a few times over the last few days and weeks. One, he is absolutely ecstatic about the series and the idea of being famous,” Goode told the Times. “He’s absolutely thrilled. I think he is trying to be an advocate for -- no surprise -- criminal justice reform. He is in a cage, and of course, he’s going to say that he now recognizes what he did to these animals.”
Goode indicated he didn’t necessarily believe the former wildlife owner is regretful.
“I take it with a big grain of salt when he says he is now apologetic for keeping animals,” the director said.
Not everyone is thrilled by the series, particularly Baskin, who used her rescue’s website to refute the lies she alleges are included in the documentary. One of the more salacious bombshells: a suggestion that Baskin had a hand in the disappearance of her husband, Don Lewis, more than two decades ago.
“When the directors of the Netflix documentary Tiger King came to us five years ago, they said they wanted to make the big cat version of Blackfish (the documentary that exposed abuse at SeaWorld) that would expose the misery caused by the rampant breeding of big cat cubs for cub petting exploitation and the awful life the cats lead in roadside zoos and back yards if they survive,” Baskin says in her rebuttal.
“There are not words for how disappointing it is to see that the docuseries not only does not do any of that, but has had the sole goal of being as salacious and sensational as possible to draw viewers,” she writes.
“As part of that (goal), it has a segment devoted to suggesting, with lies and innuendos from people who are not credible, that I had a role in the disappearance of my husband Don 21 years ago.”
According to People magazine, Don Lewis, 59, vanished in August 1997 and was never seen again. His car was found abandoned at an airport and, according to The Charley Project, the keys were on the floorboard.
The Florida Crime Information Center still has Jack Donald Lewis, who vanished Aug. 8, 1997, listed as a missing person out of Hillsborough County. At the time of his disappearance, authorities said he may have traveled to Costa Rica.
Lewis’ oldest child, Donna Pettis, told People in 1998 that his family believed Baskin was involved in his disappearance.
Baskin feeding his body to big cats would be “a perfect scenario to dispose of someone,” Pettis told the magazine. “We were upset that the cops didn’t test the DNA on the meat grinder.”
Baskin refutes the “absurd claims” about her husband and writes that Lewis was showing signs of mental deterioration for a couple of years before he vanished. She said he had begun hoarding vehicles and other equipment on the 40 acres where the sanctuary sits.
“He deteriorated into dumpster diving and even got stuck in a dumpster and called me crying because he did not know where he was,” she writes. “Back then Alzheimer’s was not a commonly used word.”
“The series presents this without any regard for the truth or in most cases even giving me an opportunity before publication to rebut the absurd claims,” she writes. “They did not care about truth. The unsavory lies are better for getting viewers.”
Another character in the series who has disputed his portrayal is Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who runs the Myrtle Beach Safari in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Antle’s safari was recently raided by police, according to The Washington Post.
The Myrtle Beach Sun News reported that a former employee of Antle’s accuses him on the series of running his business like a cult.
“It is important to understand that this series is not a documentary; it’s sensationalized entertainment with paid participants,” Antle alleges. “‘Tiger King’ is the bizarre story of Joe and Carole and their feud. These characters are not representative of experts in the wildlife sector or world-class facilities like ours here in Myrtle Beach.
“Myrtle Beach Safari has been recognized by the state of South Carolina as one of the preeminent wildlife facilities in the United States. We’ve also received international accolades for the critical role we provide with our qualified, captive breeding programs and our global conservation efforts of threatened and endangered species.”
Crimes behind the docuseries
Federal authorities and court records give a detailed look into the crimes that sent Maldonado-Passage, of Wynnewood, Oklahoma, to prison.
Maldonado-Passage, who also goes by the name Joseph Allen Schreibvogel, had an ongoing dispute with Baskin stemming from her criticism of his wildlife center’s care, exhibition and breeding practices for big cats like lions and tigers. Baskin is the founder of Big Cat Rescue, an animal sanctuary based out of Tampa, Florida.
“Until 2011, the dispute was carried on primarily through traditional and social media,” a November 2018 indictment in the case reads.
That year, Baskin filed a civil lawsuit against Maldonado-Passage. The Tampa Bay Times reported that, in retaliation for Baskin’s outreach efforts to stop people from booking his traveling petting zoo, Maldonado-Passage had renamed the attraction “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment.”
The trademark infringement suit in February 2013 resulted in a judgment against Maldonado-Passage, requiring him to pay Baskin more than $1 million. She and her sanctuary have never received any of the money.
By January 2012, Maldonado-Passage’s criticism of Baskin turned to threats of violence, including threats on Facebook and YouTube. According to an interview Baskin did with the Times, the threats included a video Maldonado-Passage made of himself shooting a blow-up doll dressed to look like her.
He also produced an image of Baskin hanging in effigy, the newspaper reported.
In early November 2017, Maldonado-Passage began trying to hire a hit man to travel to Florida and kill Baskin, the indictment says.
On Nov. 6, the supposed hit man traveled from Oklahoma to Dallas to get fake identification for use when traveling to Florida. Later that month, Maldonado-Passage mailed the man’s cellphone to Nevada to conceal the proposed gunman’s involvement in the plot.
That same day, Nov. 25, Maldonado-Passage gave the man $3,000 he had received in the sale of a big cat to the man as payment for Baskin’s murder, the indictment says. Thousands more would be paid once the job was complete.
That plot never materialized. The Times reported last year that the would-be killer ran off with the money and never made it to Florida.
Jurors at Maldonado-Passage’s trial also heard that, beginning in July 2016, Maldonado-Passage repeatedly asked a second witness to kill Baskin or to help him find someone who would. The person he went to that time went to authorities and arranged a December 2017 meeting with a supposed hit man.
The hit man was an undercover FBI agent.
“The jury heard a recording of his meeting with the agent to discuss details of the planned murder,” according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Oklahoma.
Cox Media Group