The Untold Truth Of Joe Exotic's Husbands

The Netflix true-crime series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness brings a renewed interest in the unusual life of a man named Joe Exotic. Of course, that's not his birth name — his actual moniker is Joseph Schreibvogel, which he changed to Joseph Maldonado-Passage, before finally settling on his famous nickname, per Esquire. Other than his wild name, the Kansas native is best known for his collection of wild cats and the exotic zoo he once owned in Oklahoma. What's more? Joe — who is openly gay — has garnered attention for being a polygamist.

But wait, that's not all. It's also important to mention Joe was sentenced to 22 years in prison for wildlife violations and for reportedly paying $3,000 in a murder-for-hire plot to kill wildlife activist Carole Baskin, who openly protested against Joe's controversial zoo, according to The New York Times. It's no wonder his life made excellent material for a Netflix series, right?

Circling back to Joe's personal life, he had a total of five husbands. Intrigued yet? Here is everything we know about Joe Exotic's multiple partners. 

Joe Exotic's father disowned him because of his sexuality

Joe Exotic grew up in a conservative farming family in Kansas. According to the Daily Beast, his dad, Francis, "was a spindly Korean War vet who smoked heavily and spoke little of war." His mom, Shirley, "had a softer side" and "doted" on Joe, the youngest of five. Francis and Shirley supposedly "hauled their kids to Catholic church each Sunday," but a massive rift developed when one of the siblings reportedly outed Joe as gay. Francis supposedly made "Joe shake his hand, and promise not to attend his funeral," per the Daily Beast

Joe was devastated. He was reportedly working as a cop at the time and drove his squad car off a bridge "in an apparent suicide attempt." He spent 56 days in traction in Florida, and when he recovered, he landed a job at a pet store. 

Joe said he learned valuable lessons from his deeply disappointing coming out experience. During his attempt to run for president in 2016 (Yes, you read that correctly) he discussed his sexuality, asserting that being gay gave him "the ability to open my heart and my mind to let people live how the hell they want to live."

Joe Exotic's first marriage ended in heartbreak

In the early '80s, Joe was working at a gay bar in Texas called the Round-up Saloon as a security guard when he met Brian Rhyne, a "slender, sassy 19-year-old," according to New York magazine. They quickly moved in together, purchasing a trailer in Arlington, Texas, where they would snort "pink-tinged meth and go out to bars." The guys eventually got hitched at the Round-up Saloon, even though gay marriage wasn't legal at the time.

During their marriage, Joe got a job at a pet store called Pet Safari, which he later owned with his brother, Garold. Then in 1997, everything changed when Garold was killed in a highway accident. Garold's family sued the trucking company that was involved in the collision, and Joe managed to convince his parents to put the settlement money toward a refuge for exotic animals. Joe purchased a ranch in Wynnewood, Okla. and named it the Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park or the G.W. Zoo, for short. Joe and Rhyne's park quickly filled up with exotic animals, with some of the young creatures living in their home.

Tragically, Rhyne died of complications from HIV in 2001, per New York magazine. "Joe was loading him into a pickup to take him home to die peacefully, when he breathed his last breath. Joe screamed loud enough to make your ears ring."

Joe Exotic falls for 'very young and very rough' men

After Brian Rhyne's death, something supposedly changed in Joe Exotic and what he looked for in a man, per New York magazine. Joe began spending time at a gay bar called Copa, where he was rumored to have brought in a leashed tiger one Saturday night. It seemed like Joe's attitude towards relationships mirrored his interest in obtaining wild cats: the more unpredictable the relationship, the more worthy the pursuit. He reportedly gravitated toward "very young and very rough" men who claimed to be heterosexual. 

Joe married a man in his twenties from Oklahoma named Jeffrey Charles "J.C." Hartpence, although the ceremony wasn't legal. Joe's new paramour was allegedly addicted to drugs and alcohol, and he once held a gun to the zookeeper's head during a fight, according to Texas Monthly. Hartpence is now serving life in prison for murder, The Wichita Eagle reported.

After his relationship with Hartpence, Joe met a young man fresh out of high school named John Finlay who was "a cute little redneck boy who hid his teeth when he smiled," reported New York magazine. Joe allegedly asked Finlay to take steroids, and he also paid for him to get a tattoo on his pelvis which read: "PRIVATELY OWNED BY JOE EXOTIC." The relationship turned volatile, and during a fight, Finlay allegedly threw Joe into a wall with such force that he required hospitalization, the mag reported.

Joe Exotic dabbled in polygamy

While still dating John Finlay, Joe Exotic met a young man named Paul who, according to New York magazine, asked to withhold his last name. Paul was quiet and shy and, like John Finlay and J.C. Hartpence, didn't identify as gay. Joe reportedly slept between the two men in a shared bed.

When Paul left, Joe met another young man named Travis Maldonado, who was from California. Maldonado wound up working at Joe's zoo, thinking it would give him a "chance to clean up" his life, per the Daily Beast.

Joe later married Maldonado and Finlay in an unofficial three-way ceremony. However, the polygamous union disintegrated. Finlay claimed Joe became increasingly controlling. In August 2014, Finlay attacked Joe in the parking lot behind the zoo and was charged with assault and battery, per Texas Monthly. Finlay ultimately left Joe and Maldonado, marrying a woman who also worked at the zoo, and they have a child together.  

FYI: Maldonado and Joe Exotic obtained their marriage license in 2015, as reported by Oxygen. Court records indicate the zookeeper was never legally married to Finlay. 

Did Joe Exotic manipulate his lovers with gifts?

Joe Exotic's political ambitions didn't gain much traction, but his bid for the White House did help us get to know him better. "I've had some kinky sex. I have tried drugs through the younger years of my life. I am broke as sh*t," he revealed in one presidential campaign video. According to the Daily Beast, he's a self-described "gay, gun-toting cowboy with a mullet," so how did he wind up with two husbands (at the same time) who may have been straight? 

Former zoo manager John Reinke claims darker forces were at play in the union of Joe, Travis Maldonado, and John Finley. "I don't know how much love was involved, but I'm sure it was the cars that he bought John Finlay, the guns he bought John Finlay, the four-wheelers he bought John Finlay," Reinke says in the Tiger King documentary (via USA Today.) "If they wanted it, they got it. All they had to do was ask. I think that's how (Joe) kept 'em close to him."

Joe Exotic got legally hitched before his arrest

After John Finlay left Joe Exotic, Travis Maldonado died at age 23 in a tragic accident. The 2017 incident occurred in the office of the zoo's gift shop, where Maldonado was supposedly trying to prove something he saw on the internet about his pistol. Maldonado believed the gun wouldn't fire without its magazine, so he put the weapon to his head after removing the magazine to demonstrate his theory. Knowing there was still a bullet in the pistol's chamber, Maldonado apparently pulled the trigger and accidentally shot himself dead, The Oklahoman reported.

Just two months after Maldonado's death, Joe married a 19-year-old man he met online named Dillon Passage. Joe then left the zoo and moved to Gulf Breeze, Fla. with Passage, where they lived together until Joe was arrested in 2018 for allegedly conspiring to kill Carole Baskin, the founder and CEO of Big Cat Rescue, an organization that has tried to shutter Joe's business for years. Joe was sentenced to 22 years behind bars in January 2020.

Where are Joe Exotic's husbands now?

Joe Exotic's first husband, Brian Rhyne, died of complications from HIV, and his second husband, J.C. Hartpence, is serving life in prison for murder, according to The Wichita Eagle. But there is still unfinished business with Joe's other husbands. 

Members of Travis Maldonado's family are unconvinced that his death was an accident and, according to the Daily Beast, they want the ashes Joe sent them tested. John Finlay is reportedly working as a welder in Davis, Okla. He has a girlfriend and a daughter and seems to be doing well. "Whether he knows it or not, he did mentally abuse me and controlled me," Finlay told the Daily Beast. "But I've actually got it figured out now."

As for Joe's most recent husband, Dillon Passage, they are still technically married at this time, but Passage has reportedly tried to maintain a low profile as Tiger King's visibility soars. Slate said the "addictive, ethically questionable, and spectacular" series is "the only show crazier than the world outside right now," so we probably haven't heard the last from Joe and the men in his life.