One of the men Maldonado-Passage tried to commission was an undercover agent for the FBI, which was investigating the zookeeper along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Maldonado-Passage was also convicted of illegally selling or attempting to sell tigers without a federal permit.
Maldonado-Passage’s week-long trial was a highly unusual federal prosecution of endangered species violations involving captive animals and the first related to captive tigers. It exposed basic gaps in oversight of large, dangerous predators that remain spottily tracked.
“Wildlife crime is often connected with other criminal activity such as fraud, narcotics, money-laundering and smuggling. Mr. Maldonado-Passage added murder-for-hire,” Edward Grace, assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement, said in a statement Wednesday. “The Service along with our partners will continue to bring to justice [to] those involved in wildlife trafficking and other assorted crimes.”
In an interview last year with The Washington Post and in court testimony, Maldonado-Passage said he was never serious about killing the Florida sanctuary owner, Carole Baskin, and denied he had illegally sold tigers. The five tigers he fatally shot and buried at the zoo, he told the court, were “euthanized” because they were unwell. A federal forensic pathologist who examined the animals’ carcasses testified that all seemed healthy.
In a witness statement to the court, Baskin — whom Maldonado-Passage repeatedly threatened, according to court testimony and evidence — urged Judge Scott L. Palk to hand down a long sentence. “If this vicious, obsessed man is ever released from jail, my life and my family’s lives will return to what it was like during the decade leading up to his arrest,” she said.
In an email to The Post after the sentencing, Baskin’s husband, Howard, said, “We feel justice was served, and we were particularly pleased with the emphasis the judge put on the wildlife charges and on using this sentence as a deterrent to others.”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which had long complained to federal officials about breeding practices and conditions at the zoo Maldonado-Passage founded in rural Wynnewood, Okla., called on authorities to continue pursuing such cases.
“Maldonado-Passage may be the first captive-animal abuser to go to prison for killing and trafficking in captive big cats,” Brittany Peet, the PETA Foundation’s director of captive animal law enforcement, said in a statement, “but he shouldn’t be the last.”