TAMPA, Fla. — The much-anticipated Netflix series Tiger King 2 debuted last week, raising new questions about the wildlife violations and the murder-for-hire conspiracy conviction that landed Joe Maldonado-Passage, better known as “Joe Exotic,” in federal prison.
ABC Action News I-Team Investigator Adam Walser spoke with the Tiger King’s new attorney about ongoing efforts to help Joe get out of prison.
Attorney John Phillips claims new evidence could pave the way for a judge to overturn his conviction.
As Tiger King 2 tops Nexflix’s list of most-watched shows, Joe Exotic’s new attorney is optimistic about his client’s future.
“2022 is the year of the tiger. We hope it’s the year of the Tiger King as well,” Phillips said.
“Dancing with the Stars” ad unites Joe and new attorney
John Phillips took over as Joe’s attorney in March.
It was Tampa resident Carole Baskin’s appearance on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” that brought Joe and Phillips together.
At that time, Phillips represented the daughters of Baskin’s former husband Don Lewis and Lewis’ long-time executive assistant Anne McQueen.
Lewis was the co-founder of Big Cat Rescue (formerly Wildlife on Easy Street), which Carole Baskin currently operates in Citrus Park.
Attorney Phillips ran an ad during a “Dancing with the Stars” episode featuring Baskin, which sought tips about Lewis’ whereabouts after Lewis went missing nearly a quarter of a century ago.
Both seasons of Tiger King raise questions about whether Carole Baskin was involved in Lewis’ disappearance.
That missing person case is still under investigation by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
“Don Lewis mysteriously disappeared in 1997. His family deserves answers. They deserve justice,” Phillips said in the advertisement, which offered a $100,000 reward for information.
“Joe saw it and heard about me. And was trying desperately to get me to email him in prison or visit him,” Phillips said.
Phillips met with him at a prison in Texas, agreed to represent him and filed an appeal for his 22-year prison sentence.
“The appellate court reversed his sentence. And so there’s got to be a new sentencing. As part of the new sentencing, there’s gonna be new evidence,” Phillips said.
Phillips: witnesses lied, authorities cut corners
Phillips said new evidence shows the federal government failed to prove Joe shot tigers who could no longer produce new cubs to free up cages for more animals.
A former employee testified about that at his trial.
But Phillips said federal Wildlife Officers failed to prove their case.
“All they did was dig out the heads and the heads showed a bullet hole and that was that,” Phillips said.
As part of the discovery in the case, Phillips obtained a video of USDA officers laughing and joking as they sawed the head off a tiger buried at Joe’s former zoo.
“Yeah!” said one officer, as the tiger’s head detaches from its body.
“Victory,” proclaimed another officer in the video.
He also believes crucial evidence was overlooked.
“They completely ignored what was documented by Joe’s veterinarian Dr. Greene, which was documented evidence on all five tigers that they had ailments of everything from arthritis to degenerative disc disease, which would have shown up under x-rays,” Rathmann said. “But that opportunity never presented itself because they were only worried about the heads.”
“The story is in the animal’s body. That determines whether they were subject to euthanasia and that’s what’s still left in the ground,” Phillips said.
Phillips said an elderly white Bengal tiger named “Samson,” who a zoo staff member testified was one of the five tigers Joe shot, turned up alive and well at another animal sanctuary last year.
“It’s stuff like that… that they really didn’t care about the facts, over the substance of getting a conviction. And that’s a problem,” Phillips said.
Phillips said new affidavits also prove witnesses lied at Joe’s trial about the plot to kill Carole Baskin, saying text messages and taped phone conversations point to possible misconduct by federal agents.
“This isn’t a case where the federal government came in after the fact and said, 'hey, there’s this murder for hire plot. Let’s go back and interview witnesses.' They were on this side of it, way ahead of it, trying to get the murder for hire plot to actually happen,” Phillips said.
“He took no effort whatsoever to go out of his way to either obtain $5,000 cash, sell some tiger cubs, get cell phones… any of the things that were recommended to him to do that would show intent,” Rathmann said.
“Health is important, but so is freedom”
In the meantime, Joe Exotic is fighting another battle… after recently being diagnosed with prostate cancer.
He was moved to the Butner Federal Medical Center in North Carolina last week.
“He was transferred the morning before Tiger King aired. My understanding is it was a caravan, to a private plane from Texas to North Carolina. And he’s currently undergoing quarantine,” Phillips said.
Phillips hopes Joe’s medical treatment won’t interfere with his re-sentencing hearing.
“Health is important, but so is freedom. And we’d rather have him get treatment on the outside, where his doctors aren’t chosen for him,” Phillips said.
“2022 is the year for Joe Exotic to walk out of that prison and get his life back,” Rathmann said.
In yet another bizarre turn, Joe Exotic plans to pay for his legal defense with proceeds from a new crypto-currency called the T-King coin.
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