Bond has been set for “Tiger King” star Bhagavan “Doc” Antle on charges he laundered more than half a million dollars, money federal prosecutors have said that he believed to be the proceeds of an operation to smuggle people across the Mexican border into the United States.
A federal judge in Florence, South Carolina, on Monday set a $250,000 secured bond for Antle, who was still listed as being held in jail as of Monday evening. Federal prosecutors said it would take a day to process his release, after which Antle will be confined to his 50-acre (20-hectare) wildlife tropical preserve in Socastee, outside Myrtle Beach.
Prosecutors had argued in court filings that Antle should remain in custody prior to his trial because he is a flight risk, noting his “significant financial resources” and “contacts that know how to make false identification documents."
Arguing for his release, Antle's attorneys said the 62-year-old has no prior convictions and suffers from an irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure, “which can exacerbate the symptoms of COVID-19 should Antle contract the disease while he is incarcerated.”
Charges against Antle and Andrew Jon Sawyer, one of Antle’s employees at Myrtle Beach Safari, were revealed during a federal court hearing earlier this month.
According to federal prosecutors, Antle and Sawyer laundered $505,000 over a four-month period by doling out checks from businesses they controlled, receiving a 15% fee of the money that passed through their hands.
The checks, prosecutors allege, falsely purported to be payment for construction work at Myrtle Beach Safari but were in reality intended to serve as evidence that the recipients had legitimate income.
According to a federal complaint, Antle discussed his plan to conceal the cash he received by inflating tourist numbers at his wildlife preserve. Prosecutors also said he had previously used bulk cash receipts to purchase animals for which he could not use checks.
According to authorities, Antle and Sawyer each face a maximum of 20 years in federal prison if convicted. Sawyer was released earlier this month on $100,000 bond, according to court records.
Antle is featured prominently in “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” a 2020 Netflix documentary miniseries that focused on tiger breeders and private zoo operators in the U.S. The series focused heavily on Oklahoma zoo operator Joe Exotic, who also was targeted for animal mistreatment and was convicted in a plot to kill a rival, Carole Baskin.
Animal rights advocates have accused Antle of mistreating lions and other wildlife. He faces multiple charges in Virginia, including animal cruelty, wildlife trafficking and 13 misdemeanor counts of conspiracy to violate the Endangered Species Act.
Federal prosecutors said Antle was on bond for those state charges when he committed his alleged crimes in South Carolina.
In May, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals asked the IRS to probe Antle’s Rare Species Fund, a nonprofit raising money for wildlife conservation. PETA alleges he uses some of the fund’s money to subsidize his safari site.
In a statement Monday, Michelle Sinnott, associate director of PETA's Captive Animal Law Enforcement Division, said that a federal agent who testified at Antle's detention hearing “made it clear that additional federal charges are expected within the month.”
Antle has a history of recorded violations, going as far back as 1989, when he was fined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for abandoning deer and peacocks at his zoo in Virginia. Over the years, he has had more than 35 USDA violations for mistreating animals.
Meg Kinnard can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.
Meg Kinnard, The Associated Press