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‘Two Unrelated Hitmen Are Two Sources of Harm’: Federal Appeals Court Upholds Decades-Long Sentence for Tiger King’s ‘Joe Exotic’


Image via YouTube screengrab

The zookeeper turned convicted would-be hitman who was launched into the national spotlight during a 2020 streaming series about big cat breeding will not be able to reduce his decades-long prison sentence.

Joe Exotic — real name Joseph Maldonado-Passage — had hoped to get his 21-year prison sentence knocked down by 10 years following a recalculation of his sentence based on a prior ruling from the appeals court.

He was convicted in 2019 of several federal crimes, including two counts of trying to hire a hitman to murder his rival Carole Baskin, the owner of Big Cat Rescue in Florida. She had successfully sued Maldonado-Passage in 2013 for trademark infringement, eventually winning a nearly $1 million award; Maldonado-Passage, according to prosecutors, then set in motion a plan to kill her.

Specifically, according to court documents, Maldonado-Passage solicited zoo employee Alan Glover in 2017 to kill Baskin. He is believed to have arranged and paid for Glover to travel to get a fake ID card, provided him with a new phone, and sent him around $3,000 in order to go to Florida and carry out the killing. Although Glover did travel to Florida in November of that year, he apparently did not contact or attempt to kill Baskin.

Maldonado-Passage then sought out another contract killer to do the deed. He miscalculated, however, and ended up seeking out the support of an undercover FBI agent, referred to only as “Mark,” ultimately offering him $10,000 in exchange for killing Baskin.

The financing of his murder-for-hire plot allegedly came from the sale of a hybrid lion-tiger cub.

In addition to the hitman plots, Maldonado-Passage was also convicted of violating the Endangered Species Act and falsifying wildlife records.

His original 22-year sentence was reduced in January 2022 to 21 years after he argued that the trial court miscalculated how much time he should spend behind bars. Lawyers for Maldonado-Passage challenged the way the U.S. District Judge Scott Lawrence Palk had recalculated his sentence, and argued their client’s case before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September.

Maldonado-Passage argued that the two murder-for-hire convictions should be sentenced as a single offense for sentencing purposes, and that he shouldn’t be required to serve two consecutive 102-month terms for each of those charges, as the lower court had ruled.

In its pre-Christmas ruling, a three-judge panel on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Maldonado-Passage’s argument, and upheld Palk’s marginally reduced sentence.

The ruling noted as “a threshold matter” that Palk, a Donald Trump appointee, didn’t abuse his discretion by refusing to reconsider its rejection of Maldonado-Passage’s previously-filed motion to dismiss one of the charges. But the judges, in their ruling, went further, ruling that federal law allows the charges to remain separate for sentencing purposes in murder-for-hire plots in which “two unrelated hitmen are hired to kill the same person.”

“He asks this court to remand this case to the district court to merge the two counts and resentence him on the remaining count,” Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Michael R. Murphy, a Bill Clinton appointee, wrote in the ruling. “Such a remedy is not available here. This court has consistently held the only available relief for multiplicitous convictions is for the district court to use its discretion to vacate one of the underlying convictions … [W]e already affirmed Maldonado-Passage’s convictions. To now merge his counts or run his sentences concurrently would effectively overrule this court’s earlier affirmance of his convictions.”

Maldonado-Passage argued that he was being punished twice for the same crime, the judges noted, in violating of his protection against double jeopardy. The question in the case, according to the judges, is “whether a single victim unites the actions as one offense” under the law, and noted that while other cases have found that multiple plots to kill a single victim could be consolidated for sentencing purposes, the facts of this case justified the lower court’s approach.

“[H]ere there are as many plots as there are hitmen,” the ruling said. “The record indicates Maldonado-Passage’s contacts with his anticipated hitmen were entirely distinct. Although they shared a common target, evidence indicates the hitmen shared little else.”

For example, the judges said, neither Glover nor Mark communicated with each other or worked together. They also “received different instructions at different times; and they had entirely separate rewards. Thus, the two hitmen represented two independently operating plots to kill Baskin.”

Hiring two hitmen to kill a single target, the judges wrote, “demonstrably increases the chance of harm to that individual. Two hitmen pursuing their reward doubles an individual’s risk. An additional interstate phone call to a hitman clarifying the details of an existing plan, however, does not necessarily do the same.”

“Two unrelated hitmen are separate sources of harm,” the judges added.

The judges said that the defendant’s legal theory of the case could potentially lead to dangerous results.

“Under his theory of an ‘over-arching plot to kill a single person’ interpretation of § 1958(a), an individual could independently hire several hitmen to kill a single person and be charged the same as someone who makes one phone call to solicit the murder of another,” the ruling said. “The first individual could amass a cavalry of independently operating killers to terrorize the intended victim without fear of being charged with multiple counts under § 1958(a). Similarly, Maldonado-Passage’ interpretation would also forbid multiple charges where an individual orchestrates separate murder-for-hire schemes on the same target years apart.”

The ruling from Murphy, Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Bobby Ray Baldock, a Ronald Reagan appointee, and U.S. Circuit Judge Carolyn McHugh, a Barack Obama appointee, was unanimous.

Read the ruling here.

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