Wildlife-Crime Defendant Sentenced to 22 Years’ Imprisonment

On January 22, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas sentenced Joseph Maldonado-Passage to 264 months’ imprisonment, after his conviction at trial of two counts of murder-for-hire, eight counts of violating the Lacey Act for falsifying wildlife records, and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act.  According to National Geographic, Maldonado, also known as “Joe Exotic,” was “a prolific tiger breeder and dealer” who operated an animal park in Oklahoma.

The Justice Department release on the sentencing stated that the original indictment against Maldonado-Passage charged him with “of hiring an unnamed person in November 2017 to murder a “Jane Doe” in Florida and also hiring a person who turned out to be an undercover FBI agent to commit that murder.”  A superseding indictment further charged him with falsifying forms involving the sale of wildlife in interstate commerce, killing five tigers “to make room for cage space for other big cats,” and selling and offering to sell tiger cubs in interstate commerce.  Because tigers are an endangered species, these alleged killings and sales violated the Endangered Species Act.

At trial, the jury heard evidence that Maldonado-Passage “gave Allen Glover $3,000 to travel from Oklahoma to South Carolina and then to Florida to murder Carole Baskin, with a promise to pay thousands more after the deed.”  Baskin, who had been a critic of Maldonado-Passage’s animal park, “owns a tiger sanctuary in Florida and had secured a million-dollar judgment against Maldonado-Passage.”  The evidence also showed that Maldonado-Passage “repeatedly sought someone to murder Baskin in exchange for money, which led to his meeting with an undercover FBI agent on December 8, 2017.”  The jury heard a recording of Maldonado-Passage’s meeting with the undercover agent to discuss details of the proposed murder.

Beyond the murder-for-hire counts, the evidence at trial included evidence of violations of the Lacey Act, which criminalizes the falsification of records of wildlife transactions in interstate commerce.  That evidence addressed Maldonado-Passage’s designation on delivery forms and Certificates of Veterinary Inspection “that tigers, lions, and a baby lemur were being donated to the recipient or transported for exhibition only, when he knew they were being sold in interstate commerce.”  Finally, the evidence also established “that Maldonado-Passage personally shot and killed five tigers in October 2017, without a veterinarian present and in violation of the Endangered Species Act.”

Note: In the fight against wildlife crime, Maldonado-Passage’s conviction and sentencing are noteworthy for two reasons.  Although much of the public attention paid to wildlife crime has focused on poaching of wildlife outside North America, there is extensive illicit trafficking in live animals and animal parts within the United States.  Maldonado-Passage’s trial, in fact, “revealed widespread criminal activity in the U.S. tiger industry.”  For that reason, financial-crimes compliance teams at financial institutions should ensure that they are conducting appropriate due diligence on any U.S. businesses, such as private animal parks or privately owned zoos, that make use of endangered species in their shows or displays, and conduct enhanced due diligence if they see indications that such businesses may be violating the Lacey Act, the Endangered Species Act, or U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations in the course of their operations.

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