TAMPA, Fla. — New evidence has been sent to the outgoing Trump administration for their consideration when deciding whether to grant a pardon to Joe Exotic — the imprisoned former zoo owner and made famous last year by Netflix docuseries "Tiger King."
People close to the reality TV star — who was convicted in a murder-for-hire plot and several violations of the endangered species act — say that his legal team has obtained audiotapes they hope will free Exotic, whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage.
The case of Joe Exotic got widespread attention in early 2020 when Netflix released "Tiger King": the salacious story of how Exotic and his Oklahoma zoo went to war with Carole Baskin, the owner of a Big Cat Sanctuary in Tampa, Florida.
“Maldonado had made his threats online over a period of years,” Baskin said after Joe Exotic's arrest.
“There are a lot of crazy characters. A lot of twists and turns. And just when you think you can’t get any more strange it does,” retired U.S. Secret Service Agent Jim Rathmann said.
Rathmann teamed up with television producer Theresa McKeown to investigate Exotic's case.
“There’s so much more information that’s going to come out over time. There’s so much, it’s overwhelming,” McKeown said. “When I saw that article last night that Trump has 100 people he’s gonna pardon, I’m thinking Joe’s probably one of them. Or so I hope.”
“There are 257 pages for the pardon. That’s made it up to its way to the White House. But what they’ve gotten recently is this new evidence,” Rathmann said.
Rathmann, now a private investigator, first talked to Joe Exotic last year when the Investigation Discovery Network hired him to look into the case of Baskin's missing husband, Don Lewis.
McKeown, a former Inside Edition producer, met Joe Exotic in 2014 when he pitched a reality show.
“He was such a live wire and he was at war with PETA at the time, so none of the networks really wanted anything to do with it,” she said.
In recent months, McKeown and Rathmann have helped uncover what they say are issues with Joe Exotic's original trial that could be used in his pardon application and appeal.
“You find your evidence and you let the evidence take you wherever the case is going to take you. And in this particular case keeps bringing me down the path that this murder-for-hire never happened,” Rathmann said.
Rathmann and McKeown were recently contacted by former Indiana zoo owner Tim Stark, who knows most of the people in the Tiger King.
Stark, who faces multiple criminal charges in Indiana related to the operation of his zoo, provided Rathmann and McKeown with tapes of phone conversations he believes calls into question the testimony of some witnesses.
Stark confirmed that he recorded the phone calls, the nature of the contents and that he provided them to Rathmann and McKeown.
“It’s pretty explosive, in my opinion. I’m not an attorney, but I’m looking at that going ‘Oh my God!’” McKeown said.
They say recordings were rushed to the White House as part of the pardon application. Rathmann says they will also be used by Joe Exotic’s attorneys in an upcoming appeal.
“I would have loved this information to have been out two years ago before his trial so he never would have been convicted overall. But since that isn’t what happened, it’s better late than never. And in this particular case, he has an appeal. He has oral arguments that are coming up on the 20, which is also the same day as the inauguration,” Rathmann said.
This story was originally published by Adam Wasler on WFTS in Tampa, Florida.