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‘Tiger King’ star charged with animal trafficking and money laundering

This image provided by the Horry County Sheriff's Office in Conway, S.C., shows Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who was arrested by the FBI on June 3, 2022, on federal money laundering charges. (AP)
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Bhagavan “Doc” Antle of Netflix’s wildly popular Tiger King docuseries could be finding himself in a cage of his own, adding to the string of misfortune for some featured subjects of the series who shot to fame and then notoriety.

Antle, 62, and four others — Andrew Jon “Omar” Sawyer, Meredith “Moksha” Bybee, Charles Sammut and Jason Clay — have been indicted on 10 counts of trafficking wildlife animals such as cheetahs, lemurs and chimpanzees. Antle and Sawyer are also accused of laundering more than $500,000 in cash for smuggling illegal immigrants across the Mexican border into the United States, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina.

Millions grew to know Antle’s antics and alleged shady activity from a 2021 Netflix spinoff focusing solely on him, “Tiger King: The Doc Antle Story.” The limited-episode series highlighted allegations of sexual abuse and violence against former partners, relationships with minors and claims of animal abuse, animal killings and trafficking at his wildlife preserve, Myrtle Beach Safari, in Myrtle Beach.

The original “Tiger King” series, which debuted in 2020, captivated the masses stuck at home at the height of the pandemic, bringing attention to cartoonish personalities swirled in unbelievable situations.

The main character from the 2020 series, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, is serving 21 years in prison for a murder-for-hire scheme to kill an adversary and for selling and killing tigers. Erik Crowie, a zookeeper for Maldonado-Passage, died in October of acute and chronic alcohol use. In January, Jeffrey and Lauren Lowe, who took ownership of Maldonado-Passage’s animal park as he faced legal troubles, were permanently prohibited from showcasing animals after federal authorities discovered mistreatment of the animals along with other issues.

The second season of “Tiger King” premiered last November. The Antle-based series was released in December.

Attorney Andrew Moorman told The Washington Post in a statement that Antle has spent most of his adult life caring for animals and teaching people about the natural world.

“He has done nothing wrong, and he looks forward to vigorously challenging the Government’s allegations,” Moorman said.

Antle’s recent legal troubles highlight the accusations of animal abuse and rumors of animal killings hurled his way in the docuseries.

In October 2020, Antle faced 15 charges, including two felony counts, allegedly abusing lions and trafficking the creatures between Virginia and South Carolina.

He’s expected to face a jury trial in October for these charges.

In his most recent indictment, Antle is accused of violating the Lacey Act, which prohibits the illegal trafficking of wildlife, fish and plants and the Endangered Species Act, which bans the trafficking of imperiled species.

Antle, along with others named in the indictment, allegedly broke both these laws between June 2018 and September 2018. He and Clay are accused of creating false records and identification of a juvenile chimpanzee that would be transported across states, another violation of the Lacey Act, according to the indictment.

The wildlife charges were added to June charges of money laundering for Antle and Sawyer, an employee of Antle’s.

Authorities alleged that the pair laundered more than $500,000 in cash from smuggling immigrants and funneled that money into separate businesses they both owned, according to the complaint.

Antle and Saywer allegedly used checks that appeared to be used to pay for construction work on Antle’s 50-acre wildlife tropical preserve but were really a fake paper trail to give the appearance of legitimate income, according to the indictment. They allegedly received 15 percent of any amount laundered, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office District of South Carolina.

That same complaint also accused Antle of talking about his plan to conceal the cash he received by inflating tourist numbers at his business. He also allegedly used bulk cash receipts to purchase animals he couldn’t buy with checks, according to the complaint.

Sawyer’s attorney did not return request for comment.

Antle was granted bond on Monday and released on Tuesday on a $250,000 secured bond with location monitoring, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina.

Sawyer was previously granted a bond by a federal magistrate judge as a result of the charges in the federal complaint.

Bybee, Sammut and Clay are awaiting arraignment. Legal representation for them hasn’t yet been listed.