With the widespread attention of the recent Netflix documentary, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, Joe Exotic (given name Joseph Maldonado-Passage) has become an overnight sensation. Donald Trump, Jr. has even asked his dad, the president, to consider the Tiger King for a pardon.
Joe Maldonado-Passage was responsible for creating and running a big cat zoo in the state of Oklahoma. The zoo was home to numerous tigers, lions, and other wild animals. Over the years running his zoo, Maldonado-Passage racked up a number of related federal-level crime charges.
The eccentric and now criminal ex-zookeeper from Oklahoma was recently convicted of a laundry list of charges.
Maldonado-Passage’s Criminal Charges
Most of the more recent criminal charges against Maldonado-Passage involve violations of various wildlife laws, including charges related to forged certificates for the illegal sale of wildlife. There was also a murder for hire conspiracy in which Maldonado-Passage was proven to be involved.
While the Netflix star is serving 22 years in prison now, based on federal sentencing guidelines, he might have netted 20 years for a murder for hire conviction alone.
Further, had Maldonado-Passage’s crimes been committed in the state of Texas, the penalties he had faced may have been even greater.
Federal Murder for Hire
The federal crime of murder for hire is defined as an act involving interstate or international travel or the use of a federal facility of commerce (like the post office) with the intent or promise to exchange payment for a murder to be committed. Conspiring to act is grounds for charges as well.
The former zoo owner was charged with two counts of murder-for-hire including an attempt to have the owner of a big cat rescue murdered.
Potential Murder for Hire Penalties
While penalties for this type of charge can reach a maximum of life in prison (or a death sentence) plus $250,000 in fines when a death or injury is involved, the Maldonado-Passage conviction did not. The maximum potential penalties for the charges he faced were 20 years in prison on each of the two counts; that is — 40 years total.
Lacey Act Violations
The Lacey Act, in particular, passed in 1900, created a wide range of criminal and civil penalties for trafficking in protected plant and wildlife species. One of the most important of these laws—the one that Maldonado-Passage was convicted of violating—is the prohibition of falsifying documents for the sale and shipment of wildlife.
Potential Penalties on Eight Lacey Act Violations
For falsely labeling and forging documents, the penalties include fines not to exceed $10,000 and/or no more than 5 years in prison for each violation. The Tiger King was charged with eight violations for a potential sentence of up to 40 years in prison and $80,000 owed.
Endangered Species Act Violations
On top of eight counts of violating the Lacey act for falsifying wildlife records, the King was also charged with nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act.
Potential Penalties for Endangered Species Act Violations
Where a single violation may carry a fine of $50,000 and a year in prison, Maldonado-Passage could have seen nearly another decade and close to a half-million dollars stacked on his sentence.
The Potential Maximum Penalties for the Tiger King’s Crimes
Even though Maldonado-Passage was given a 22-year sentence, it could have been worse. In accordance with federal and state laws, a Texan facing the same charges could have seen an entirely different sentence outcome.
Each of the crimes for which he was convicted is considered a federal felony, and based on maximum fines, he could have wound up serving 90 years in jail and owing well over $500,000 in fines. A far cry from the 22 years in prison he received.
This has led many to believe that he got off light for the crimes for which. he was sentenced. So how would the Tiger King’s penalties have stacked up in the state of Texas?
Maximum Penalties for the Same Charges in Texas
Because most of the charges the Tiger King faced were related to the falsification of documents, we imagine Texas authorities would have prosecuted based on forgery charges.
In Texas, each could of forgery is considered a separate State Jail Felony which is punishable by between 180 days and 2 years in prison. A conviction can also carry a $10,000 maximum fine per count. Nine counts, then, could land an offender up to 16 years in a Texas prison and a debt of $80,000.
Texas also has its own endangered species legislation which holds that violations typically garner misdemeanor charges (Classes vary based on criminal history). Nine counts could wind up costing an offender an additional 4 years in prison and another $16,500 in fines.
That murder for hire conviction? Try 10 more years per count in Texas. So add two decades of prison time and another $40,000 in fines.
Had Maldonado-Passage faced his charges in a Texas court, based on the letter of the law — and the caliber of Texas criminal defense attorney — he might have seen a prison term twice as long as what he got and owed a debt of $136,500 to the state.