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Episode 24 - Tigers & Mullets & Murder, Oh My!

Joe Schreibvogel was born in 1963 on a rural farm in Kansas. Joe’s parents had both come from wealthy farming families, but they refused to pamper their children and Joe always felt like he and his four siblings were only born so they could work on the farm. Joe recalled that no one in his family ever said “I love you” to each other. Joe further experienced the cruelty of humans when he was repeatedly raped by an older boy when he was only 5 years old. Though Joe didn’t receive any love from the people in his life, he felt love when he was with animals. Along with working with the farm animals, Joe would also bring home random animals that he would find including baby antelopes, porcupines, and raccoons. Joe’s mother said he would bring home ground squirrels and raccoons and keep them in cages until there was so many they couldn’t get through the back porch. She had to make him stop bringing home animals when he started catching snakes. In school, Joe became the president of his local 4H chapter and raised show pigeons. When he got home from school, Joe would complete his farm chores and then take his BB gun and shoot sparrows. He would collect the dead sparrows in used medicine bottles and then fill the bottles with colored water so he could practice his aspiring veterinarian skills on them. Joe would watch nature shows on TV with his older brother Garold and would often tell him that he wanted to live in Africa one day so he could see all of the beautiful beasts running free. When Joe was 11, his father decided that he was done farming and wanted to raise racehorses, so the family picked up and moved to Wyoming and then Texas shortly thereafter. Joe graduated high school in 1982 and became a police officer in the small town of Eastvale, the population was only about 500 at this time. After only a year, Joe was promoted to chief of police. At this time, Joe was living with his girlfriend named Kim, but he was starting to come to terms with his sexuality and was also exploring the gay nightlife in Dallas on his nights off work. In 1985, one of Joe’s siblings outed him as gay to his parents. Joe’s father made Joe shake his hand and promise not to attend his funeral. Joe was overcome with shame, and attempted suicide by crashing his police cruiser into a concrete bridge embankment. The police cruiser was destroyed, but Joe walked away with only a broken shoulder. Joe left Texas to participate in an experimental saltwater rehabilitation program in West Palm Beach, Florida. While in Florida, Joe moved in with his new boyfriend and got a job at a pet store. Joe’s new neighbor, Tim, worked at a drive-through exotic animal park where people could ride around in safari cars and look at wild animals wandering around in large enclosures. Tim would bring home baby lions and monkeys sometimes and let Joe play with them and bottle feed them. After a couple years, Joe moved back to Texas and got a job as a security guard at a gay cowboy bar named the Round-up Saloon. Joe met Brian Rhyne there and the two started dating. Joe and Brian moved into a trailer in Arlington, where they shared their bed with a pack of poodles. Both Joe and Brian grew mullets and handlebar mustaches. On Saturdays they would snort meth and go clubbing. Sometime in the late 80’s, Joe and Brian held an unofficial marriage ceremony at the Round-up Saloon. After the wedding, Joe got a job working at a pet store named Pet Safari that was down the street from their trailer park. After working there for a while, Joe, Brian and Joe’s brother Garold decided to buy the pet store. At first they only sold reptiles, birds, and small fish. Garold would dumpster dive behind


furniture and carpet stores and turn his finds into cat playgrounds and dog houses, which they would then sell at the pet store. Eventually they were able to expand their store and started selling small exotic animals like three banded armadillos and four eyed opossums. Joe would hang rainbow banners outside and sell rainbow dog T-shirts to attract gay clientele. In October 1997, Joe received a call that Garold had been hit by a truck driver just outside of Dallas. Garold died within the week. Joe couldn’t imagine to continue on with the pet store without Garold, so he decided to sell it. Joe and Garold’s parents won a $140,000 settlement from the trucking company that was responsible for Garold’s death. Joe’s father called the settlement “blood money” and refused to spend it. Garold’s wife and kids wanted to use the money to build a soccer field in Garold’s honor, but Joe told them that it was Garold’s dream to go to Africa, see wild lions, and spend time with “people with bones in their noses” and since Garold never got to go to Africa, they could use the money to bring Africa to America. Using the settlement money, Joe purchased a 16 acre horse ranch in Wynnewood, Oklahoma and named it the Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park or G.W. Zoo for short. Joe and Brian moved into the ranch house already built on the property and Joe got to work pouring cement and building cages. The first animals on the property were Garold’s pets, a deer and a buffalo. Word started to spread that an exotic animal sanctuary had opened, so people started dropping off the exotic animals that they no longer wanted. First there was a mountain lion, then a bear. Joe convinced the local Walmart to donate its expired meat that he would feed the carnivores. In 1999, Joe agreed to rescue a flock of emus that had been neglected on a farm just south of Dallas. While he was trying to load them up, some of the emus escaped and headed for the freeway. Joe shot six of them and was arrested by local law enforcement for recklessness and animal cruelty, but a grand jury acquitted him. In 2000, a game warden called Joe and told him that there were two abandoned tigers in a backyard near Ardmore, Oklahoma. Joe brought the tigers back to the park and named them Tess and Tickles. Joe let the tigers breed and would bring the baby tiger cubs into the house with him and Brian. In December 2001, Brian died from AIDs complications and Joe held the funeral at the zoo. Within the next year, Joe had a new husband, a 24 year old named J.C. Hartpence. The animal sanctuary was hemorrhaging money, but J.C. was an event producer and helped Joe develop a traveling animal and magic show where kids could pet tiger cubs while also learning about conservation. Joe began to use stage names like “Aaron Alex” “Cody Ryan” and “Joe Exotic”. He would hold his shows in malls and fairs from Texas all the way to Wisconsin and would travel around in a 1969 Frito-Lay truck. Joe teamed up with a magician named Johnny Magic to perform at these shows. The most popular trick was Johnny Magic would transform a baby tiger into a full grown one. When Johnny Magic decided to leave Joe’s show, Joe continued to use Johnny’s tricks and started calling the show the Mystical Magic of the Endangered. As the show began to grow, Joe upgraded the Frito-Lay truck to a Winnebago and then eventually an actual tour bus. Joe was going almost exclusively by Joe Exotic now. He enjoyed the magic show, but the show really was used to get people back to the tour bus which also doubled as a mobile petting zoo. People would pay $25 told hold a baby tiger for six minutes and another $25 for a picture with it. Joe would often brag that the mobile petting zoo once made him $23,697 in five days. Now that he was


making money, Joe’s new problem was the he needed to be constantly breeding tigers to have a steady supply of baby tigers. And once baby tigers grew into full sized tigers, they were very expensive to care for, which meant he needed more money, which meant more touring with baby tigers, which was just a crazy vicious cycle. Joe would give his animals horse vitamins instead of specialized exotic animal vitamins because they were cheaper. He would also take in horses that people would donate, shoot them, and then feed them to the big cats. In 2003, Joe visited another zoo in Oklahoma when he saw a liger, the result of a tiger and lion breeding and Joe knew that was his next project. Joe went back to his park and put a tiger with a lion and soon had his owner liger. Joe kept experimenting and then had a tiliger and a tililiger. These cats got huge, Joe’s largest tiger lion hybrid was over 1,000 pounds. Joe figured if he kept going, he could recreate the sabertooth tiger. Joe began to morph into his Joe Exotic persona. He dyed his mullet blonde, dressed in spangly shirts and wore leather chaps. He had one long, manicured pinkie nail on his left hand, had permanent eyeliner tattooed onto his eyelids, and became covered in tattoos. Joe also got several facelifts and pierced his ears, eyebrow, and penis. Joe and J.C. were having relationship problems, which Joe attributed to J.C.’s drug and alcohol addictions. J.C. said he often argued with Joe about the purpose of the park, which J.C. wanted to see as a rehab-release sanctuary while Joe continued to collect and breed animals for profit. One day, J.C. walked into the office and found a picture on his desk of the park’s largest tiger baring his teeth over a piece of meat. “J.C.’s remains” were typed over the picture and a post-it note was attached that read “If you don’t get your shit together, this is going to be your reality.” One night after that, Joe woke up to J.C. standing over him with a loaded .45 and .357 Magnum pointed at Joe’s head. J.C. said “I want out, are we clear?” Joe talked J.C. into putting the guns down, then called the cops. J.C. was arrested and never came back. Joe’s next husband was John Finlay, who started dating Joe only a few months after graduating high school. While he was with Joe, he grew his hair out into a rattail and started taking steroids that would make him prone to huge attacks of rage. Joe paid for John to get a tattoo just above his pelvis that said “Privately Owned By Joe Exotic.” While with John, Joe also started dating a man named Paul. Joe, John, and Paul would all sleep in the same bed with Joe sleeping in the middle. When Paul left, Joe married another young man named Travis in a three-way ceremony between Joe, John, and Travis where they all wore pink buttoned down shirts and the flower girls and ring bearer were monkeys. As Joe’s park and travelling show grew, he began to attract scrutiny from animal rights groups and federal regulators. In July 2004, the Oklahoman ran an article about a lion club that had been born at the zoo that was born crippled likely because of inbreeding. An animal sanctuary owner and activist named Carole Baskin was quoted in the article saying “No legitimate animal sanctuary would allow that to happen.” In 2006, the USDA suspended Joe’s exotic animal license for two weeks and forced him to pay $25,000 in fines for several violations, including failing to provide adequate veterinary care and failing to remove feces from animal enclosure. That same year, PETA published video footage from Joe’s park that showed employees discussing irregular feeding schedules, swatting animals, and even one employee striking a


tiger with the butt of a rifle. PETA claimed that the park was “churning out litters of tigers, lions, bears, and other exotic animals. Some are deformed, likely because of inbreeding or inadequate nutrition for the mother during pregnancy.” Local and federal investigators started coming by to investigate the claims, but no charges were ever filed. At this time, the park was still only 16 acres, but now housed over 1,000 animals. The park’s annual revenue was around $540,000, most of which was from donations. Joe opened up a gift shop in the park where he sold Joe Exotic skin care, Joe Exotic alcohol, and Joe Exotic condoms. He also opened the Safari Bar two miles down the road and a pizza restaurant named Zooters. Carole Baskins, the animal activist I mentioned before, had her own animal sanctuary, which was 40 acres near Tampa, Florida that she named Big Cat Rescue. As more people found out about Carole and her animal sanctuary, people would call her asking if certain sanctuaries were legitimate and if they should donate their animals to them. Carole then started a website called 911animalabuse.com where she would put detailed reports on private zoos and sanctuaries. In 2010, Carole became aware of Joe and his traveling act that was requiring him to breed tigers on a mass scale. Carole asked her followers to email the malls and fairs where Joe was booked to perform to warn them about his unethical behavior. Shortly after that, she began to receive phone calls and emails from people asking her why she was sponsoring Joe’s traveling show. That’s when Carol realized that Joe had started to use the Big Cat Rescue name and logo to advertise his show. In January 2011, Carole sued Joe for trademark infringement. As the legal battle went on, Joe built a television studio at the park and began to broadcast Joe Exotic TV on his website, where he started calling himself the Tiger King. Joe would often go on long tirades about Carole. Joe ended up losing the infringement case to Carol and now owed her $1 million. He filed for bankruptcy, dissolved the Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Foundation Memorial Park, and then had his associates form a the G.W. Interactive Zoological Foundation which would now own the zoo so that Carole couldn’t collect on it. John started to feel that Joe was manipulative and controlling and tried to leave Joe and actually ended up attacking Joe where he was then arrested and charged with assault and battery. Joe was becoming paranoid that there animal rights groups sending their members to spy on him at the park. He posted photos and videos of himself firing weapons and explosives, warning the activists to not mess with him. He also kept bringing up Carole during his TV show. One episode he said “For Carole and all of her friends that are watching out there, if you think for one minute I was nuts before, I am the most dangerous exotic animal owner on this planet right now.” In another episode, Joe had a blow-up doll wearing a blonde wig and said “You wanna know why Carole Baskin better never, ever, ever see me face-to-face ever, ever, ever again?” and then Joe shot the doll in the head with a pistol. He then said “That is how sick and tired of this shit I am. Have a great night, ladies and gentlemen, and I will see you tomorrow night.” On March 26, 2015, there was an explosion in the alligator compound at the park that boiled all but one of the alligators alive and destroyed Joe’s TV studio. Investigators speculated that it was arson, but no one was ever arrested. At this time, Joe was moving towards a settlement on how to pay Carole the $1 million. After a ten hour mediation hearing, it was agreed that Joe would pay Carole monthly payments. He could keep the park, but he would have to quit letting people pet the tiger cubs and he would have to stop


breeding the big cats. Carole’s lawyers sent over a draft of the agreement to Joe’s lawyers, but they didn’t hear anything for days. The mediator set up a conference call with Joe and his lawyers to find out what was going on. A strange voice came on the line that said “There is no deal. We’re not doing this deal.” When asked who was speaking, the voice said “Jeff Lowe.” Jeff Lowe was one of the associates that had taken over the park for Joe. They had met when Jeff bought a tiliger cub from Joe. Jeff Lowe had a shady past that included being sued by the musician Prince for selling clothes with Prince’s trademark symbol on them and pleading guilty to mail-fraud charges. Jeff had moved to park and acted as the co-owner along with Joe. Around this time, a former strip club owner named James Garretson started hanging out at the zoo because he had ideas for opening an exotic animal themed bed and breakfast. That’s when Joe asked Garretson if he knew any hit men. Joe wanted to have Carole killed and was willing to pay someone $10,000 for the job. Garretson told Joe that he’d ask around, but just blew it off. In 2017, a new employee named Ashley Webster walked up to Joe and Jeff to just say hello, but instead they asked her if she would be willing to go to Florida to kill Carole for a few thousand dollars. Ashley uncomfortably laughed and then walked away. Ashley quit her job two weeks later and left a voicemail for Carole that told her that Joe was trying to hire someone to kill her. Carole sent the voicemail to her lawyer, which turned it over to Special Agent Matthew Bryant with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who was investigating Joe for potential wildlife crimes. Since he didn’t usually handle murder for hire cases, he got a hold of FBI agent Andrew Fairbow. After meeting with the FBI agent, Agent Bryant met with Garretson and asked him to secretly record Joe the next time that he met them and bring along an undercover agent that would pose as a hit man. On October 6, 2017 Travis had been in the park’s gift shop joking around with one of the employees there. He was showing the employee his Ruger pistol. Travis had read on the internet that if you take the magazine out of the gun, and you pulled the trigger, the gun wouldn’t fire even if there was a bullet in the chamber. Travis put the gun to his head and fired. He was dead before the first responders arrived. This put Joe into an even deeper depression and spiral. He was now alone, all of his lovers had either died or abandoned him. Joe approached another employee about killing Carole. This employee agreed, so Joe gave him $3,000. The employee got on a plane and left for South Carolina instead of Florida. He never had intentions to kill Carole, just figured he should get out of the park and might as well rip Joe off too. When Joe realized that the employee had ripped him off, he arranged a meeting with Garreston and the undercover agent that he thought was a hit man. Joe met with the undercover agent on December 8, 2017. Garretson recorded their conversation. Joe offered the undercover agent $5,000 up front, $10,000 total to kill Carole. Joe didn’t have the money just yet to pay the undercover agent so Garretson and the undercover agent left. While law enforcement was putting together their case against Joe, Garretson met with Joe several more times and recorded all of their conversations. After the FBI tracked down the employee that had taken Joe’s money, they arrested Joe Exotic on two counts of murder and 17 counts of exotic-animal abuse. Joe’s trial took place in March, 2019 and the jury


only deliberated for three hours before they found him guilty on all counts. Joe was sentenced to 22 years in prison. The animal sanctuary is still running, but every mention of Joe Exotic has been removed from the property. Joe Exotic has written President Trump asking for a pardon. In the closing for his letter he said “I know by seeing your passion and conviction regarding our rights as American citizens that this isn’t what you meant by your belief to Let’s Make America Great Again. Mr. President, I am pleading with you to please have this looked into.” Joe but has not received a reply and has said that if he isn’t pardoned, he will seek another trial. There is also a new Joe Exotic documentary coming out on Netflix tomorrow. Sources: “Joe Exotic: A Dark Journey Into the World of a Man Gone Wild” by Leif Reigstad “American Animals” a New York Magazine article by Robert Moor “Joe Exotic Writes Letter to President Trump Asking For Pardon” by Sylvia Corkill


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