Tiger King star Bhagavan "Doc" Antle has been charged with laundering more than half a million dollars, US federal prosecutors said on Monday, believed to be the proceeds of an operation to smuggle illegal immigrants across the Mexican border into the United States.
Charges against Antle and Andrew Jon Sawyer, one of Antle's employees at Myrtle Beach Safari, were revealed during a federal court hearing in Florence, South Carolina.
According to federal prosecutors, Antle and Sawyer laundered US$505,000 over a four-month period by doling out cheques from businesses they controlled, receiving a 15 per cent fee of the money that passed through their hands.
The cheques, 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.
Bhagavan Antle starred in the hit Netflix series Tiger King. Photo / Supplied
According to the complaint unsealed in court on Monday, Antle discussed his plan to conceal the cash he received by inflating tourist numbers at his 20ha wildlife tropical preserve. Prosecutors also said he had previously used bulk cash receipts to purchase animals for which he could not use cheques.
Records for the Horry County jail show Antle and Sawyer were both arrested on Friday. Attorneys for both men did not immediately comment on the charges when reached via email.
According to authorities, Antle and Sawyer each face a maximum of 20 years in federal prison if convicted.
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 US. The series focused heavily on Oklahoma zoo operator Joe Exotic, who was also 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 was indicted in Virginia in 2020 on animal cruelty and wildlife trafficking charges.
In May, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) asked the IRS to probe Antle's Rare Species Fund, a non-profit raising money for wildlife conservation. Peta alleges he used some of the fund's money to subsidise his safari site in Socastee outside Myrtle Beach.
"It's fitting that 'Doc' Antle is behind bars after years of locking up the endangered animals he uses in tawdry photo ops. His legal woes are mounting, as Peta recently blew the whistle on his apparent 'charity' scam, and the end to his reign of terrorising tiger cubs can't come soon enough," said Debbie Metzler, associate director of Peta's Captive Animal Law Enforcement division, in a statement.
Meanwhile, in Virginia, Antle is facing two felony counts of wildlife trafficking and conspiracy to wildlife trafficking charges, as well as 13 misdemeanour counts of conspiracy to violate the Endangered Species Act and animal cruelty charges tied to trafficking lion cubs. Those charges are scheduled to go to trial next month.
Antle has a history of recorded violations, going as far back as 1989, when he was fined by the US Department of Agriculture for abandoning deer and peacocks at his zoo in Virginia. Over the years, he has more than 35 USDA violations for mistreating animals.
- By Meg Kinnard of AP