Article Thumbnail

Joe Exotic: A Cautionary Tale of a Murder-for-Hire Plot Involving Tigers, Michael Jackson’s Pet Alligators, and, of Course, a Florida Man

The bizarre true story of Netflix’s ‘Tiger King’

Imagine a man who looks like Guy Fieri’s older brother, who quit working at the family shoe store to follow his dreams of professionally cooking meth. Now imagine that same man owns and operates a roadside zoo in Oklahoma that houses lions, tigers and alligators that once belonged to Michael Jackson. Imagine, though, that this man’s exotic animal zoo is technically licensed as a rendering facility, not as an animal care facility. Imagine the enemies and critics a man like that would have in the exotic animal community. Lastly, imagine that same man was just arrested, in a town called Gulf Breeze, after he allegedly attempted to hire an assassin to murder the CEO of an animal sanctuary called Big Cat Rescue.

The man you’re picturing, his name is Joe Exotic.

And, of course, he was busted in Florida.

If Florida didn’t exist, it would be impossible to invent. The Sunshine State is like a dare against nature. Florida isn’t a state as much as it is a state of mind. And that state is a clothing-optional spirit of defiance. What can be said about Florida that hasn’t already been said about a Roman orgy? Florida is a land that’s either sandbar or swamp. The whole state itself is a scam against nature. Which may also be why, to varying degrees, every son and daughter of the Sunshine State behaves like the law — whether it’s the Laws of Nature, or a cop’s idea of law and order — is less of a rule to obey and more of a suggestion.

Doesn’t matter if it’s a hunter tramping through the Panhandle or a Chinese billionaire in South Beach, Florida operates with the idea that pleasure is our greatest reward for living and the highest attainment that freedom affords us before we die. That’s why Floridians hump their way to pleasure in public places and wonder what the problem is when the cops show up. It’s also where two priests from Chicago go to have sex in public. Florida is like if a game of truth or dare could get drunk and become a state.

To be fair, there’s a reason the rest of America sees so much news about Florida’s perennial parade of perps. Florida state law has a prevailing attitude of transparency that dates back to just after the turn of last century, when an open-government rule was put into effect: “Since 1909, Florida has had a proud tradition that all government business is public business and therefore should be available to the public. That means all records, including photos and videos, produced by a public agency are easily accessible with a few narrow and obvious exceptions.”

This law is why you see so many Florida mugshots in the national news that look like this:

And this…

Still, it gets better. Like this woman, who told cops that the cocaine in her possession must’ve blown into her open car window and landed in her purse. Sounds like total horseshit, right? Not when you live in Florida. She had like a 50/50 chance the cops might go for her story, just based on what they see on the daily. If there was anywhere that cocaine might miraculously blow into your car, it’s Florida.

Let’s take a look at a few other Florida Man stories from this week alone: There was this naked Florida Man who burned down his home while he was baking cookies on his George Foreman grill, after he spent the day drinking two liters of vodka and smoking weed. He started at 9 a.m. After he spent the length of a working day drinking and smoking, firefighters arrived at his door at 5:30 p.m. The cookies were burnt, the kitchen was on fire and smoke was pouring out of the windows of his home when they pulled-up. They rushed to his door. They pounded on it.

When the naked Florida Man finally opened it, he saw the firefighters. He looked them over and casually said, “I’m sorry.” Then he shut the door in their face. He treated them like they were pestering Jehovah’s Witnesses, not firefighters there to save him from his stupidity. When police arrived, they braved their way into the burning home. They had to actually detain the Florida Man to drag him out of the flaming kitchen, for his own safety. After he was examined for injuries, the Florida Man refused any medical treatment. Perhaps because he was still very drunk since he’d been slamming vodka since 9 a.m.

Then there’s the far more “criminally insane” variant: like this Florida Man who tried to use a chainsaw to remove his neighbor’s hand from his neighbor’s body. The neighbors had been fighting about bushes — for awhile. One day this week, Florida Man’s neighbor came home and saw the perp using a chainsaw to cut his bushes, without his consent. He ran over and tried to protect his now-trimmed bush by hugging it. But you know Florida Man had a response ready. He brought that chainsaw down like he was on a game show and wanted to win. He chopped into his neighbor’s arm to separate man from bush.

Florida Man: Amateur Amputator

But what about this Large Adult Son, of the Florida Man variety? Dude was drinking with his buddies. Guess they started talking about some woman who’d written a negative online review of his parents’ restaurant. The woman complained the restaurant refused service to her handicapped mother. The drunk large adult son got worked-up about this negative review. How worked up? He found the woman’s address online. Then he had one of his drunk buddies drive him over to the woman’s house, where he fired a gun indiscriminately into her home. Was he trying to scare her? Kill her? Punish her paint job? No one knows but him.

Large Adult Son: Florida Man Edition

But when it comes to making headlines, all these folks are paddling around in the shallow end of the Florida Man pool. They’re rank amateurs: drunk nudist arsonists, coke-addled liars, amateur amputators and large adult failsons. They’re wild, for Nebraska. But in Florida, they’re also-rans. Especially when you compare them to Joe Exotic — a Florida Man for the ages.

Joe Exotic: The Man, The Myth, The Cautionary Tale

Joe Exotic isn’t his real name. His mama didn’t name him that. He gave himself the nickname to winkingly remind people he’s an exotic animal zookeeper. One who was just arrested for a bizarre murder-for-hire plot to kill a rival animal sanctuary owner. After multiple failed attempts to arrange a hit on an enemy animal lover, Joe Exotic tried one more time to hire an assassin. But this last time, the hitman he approached turned out to be an undercover FBI agent. Classic Florida Man move.

Dude’s real name is Joe Schreibvogel. But he’s been known by many names. In the past he’s called himself, “Aarron Alex” and “Cody Ryan.” He’s also gone by his deceased husband’s last name, Joe Maldonado. By the time he was arrested this week, he’d added another last name. He was booked into a Florida jail as Joe Maldonado-Passage.

Naturally, a man this criminally colorful didn’t start at murder-for-hire. Joe Exotic worked up to it. His assassination plot against his rival was just his most recent headline. Back in October 2013, Joe Exotic made international headlines that sensationalized with claims like: “‘It’s Your Own Fault’: Tiger Bites Off Oklahoma Zookeeper’s Arm.” The victim, a young woman from Hawaii, had been the supervisor of his zoo’s big cat enclosure. At the time of the incident, Joe Exotic said, “She pulled her own arm out. The tiger didn’t maul her. The tiger was in his cage, and she violated his space by sticking her arm into his space.”

In April 2015, he made headlines again when: “Michael Jackson’s Pet Alligators Burned Alive in Animal Park Fire.” Joe Exotic had purchased the King of Pop’s reptiles from his Neverland Ranch, and brought them to his roadside zoo in Oklahoma, where MJ’s alligators were allegedly the victims of an arson attack that not only killed the gators but also burned down Joe Exotic’s video production studio. Is it possible someone was looking for revenge? When you’re talking Joe Exotic this doesn’t seem unlikely. It also could have been a lie to cover an insurance fire. Who knows with Joe Exotic?

Here he is at the scene of the crime. Armed and angry, he describes in his own pinched words how Michael Jackson’s pet alligators boiled alive in their tank.

In 2016, Joe Exotic was once again in the bold print when it was reported: “Zoo Owner ‘Joe Exotic’ Accused of Tossing Condoms to Crowd With Children.” This happened at a fair in Davenport, Iowa. Over the years, Joe Exotic had made a few enemies in the exotic animal community, which is why a woman secretly recorded the colorful zoo keeper at the fair, in an attempt to show his pattern of animal abuse. But Joe Exotic called the cops on her, and had her escorted from the fair. Meanwhile, he later made headlines at that same fair for handing out birth control to animal lovers, including to small children. The condoms boasted a tiger design.

Zoo owner accused of tossing condoms to crowd with children

In 2017, Joe Exotic, who by this time had taken his husband’s name and was going by Joe Maldonado, was again in the news when his young husband died under very mysterious circumstances. In October, it was reported in local Oklahoma news that the exotic animal zookeeper had tragically become a widower: “Garvin County Sheriff Larry Rhodes said Tuesday that witnesses reported 23-year-old Travis Maldonado put a loaded firearm to his head and pulled the trigger to prove the weapon would not fire with the magazine removed.”

This week, though — nearly a year after his husband died and he subsequently sold his exotic animal park in Oklahoma and relocated to the Sunshine State — Joe Exotic finally reached his true potential in Florida. He hit the big leagues with an FBI investigation. His Department of Justice affidavit states:

“…the indictment alleges that beginning in July 2016, Maldonado-Passage repeatedly asked a different unnamed person to find someone to murder Jane Doe in exchange for money. The second person put Maldonado-Passage in contact with an undercover FBI agent. Maldonado-Passage met with the undercover agent on December 8, 2017, to discuss details of murdering Jane Doe.”

That’s one charge. There’s an additional charge of murder-for-hire because Joe Exotic had previously contacted someone and “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 deed.”

Why exactly did Joe Exotic want a fellow animal lover dead?

Back in 2013, Joe Exotic lost a lawsuit against his rival animal sanctuary, Big Cat Rescue. They alleged that after a dispute, he ripped off their website artwork, and began using their branding and logo to intentionally confuse customers. The judge and jury agreed, ordering Joe Exotic to pay $1 million. Afterward, Joe Exotic said he was leaving the exotic animal business. He told reporters, “‘I’m going Hollywood. They made me a star.”

But Joe Exotic didn’t go to Hollywood. He didn’t become a star. Instead, he stayed in the exotic animal business. His Reign of Error, however, finally came to an end this week with his failed murder-for-hire plot against Carole Baskin, the CEO of Big Cat Sanctuary. The animal sanctuary posted the still below from a video Joe Exotic made that featured him threatening to shoot an effigy of Baskin, marked BCR (Big Cat Rescue) and a representative from PETA, who also challenged how Joe Exotic treated the animals in his care. (Between 2009 and 2010, the Department of Agriculture documented that 23 tiger cubs died at his roadside zoo.)

After decades of documented animal abuse, countless paranoid interactions and death threats and stalking, it’s only fitting that after Joe Exotic relocated to Florida to seek his revenge against Big Cat Rescue, that he truly blossomed into his latent potential: Full-on Florida Man.