‘Tiger King’ star Bhagavan ‘Doc’ Antle has been charged with laundering more than half a million dollars, money federal prosecutors said on Monday he believed was the proceeds of an operation to smuggle people across the Mexican border into the United States.
The 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 $505,000 over a four-month period by distributing checks from companies they controlled, receiving a 15% commission on the money that passed through their hands.
The checks, prosecutors said, falsely claimed to be payment for construction work at Myrtle Beach Safari, but were actually intended to serve as proof that the recipients had legitimate income.
According to the unsealed complaint in court on Monday, Antle discussed his plan to conceal the money he received by inflating the number of tourists at his 50-acre (20-hectare) Tropical Wildlife Reserve. Prosecutors also said he had previously used cash receipts to purchase animals for which he could not use checks.
Horry County Jail records show Antle and Sawyer were both arrested on Friday. Lawyers for the two men did not immediately comment on the charges when contacted by email.
Authorities say 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 focusing on tiger breeders and private zoo operators in the United States. The series focused heavily on Oklahoma zoo operator Joe Exotic, who was also targeted for animal abuse and was convicted of a conspiracy to kill rival Carole Baskin.
Animal rights activists have accused Antle of abusing lions and other wildlife. He was indicted in Virginia in 2020 for animal cruelty and wildlife trafficking.
In May, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals asked the IRS to investigate Antle’s Rare Species Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for wildlife conservation. PETA alleges that it uses some of the money from the fund to subsidize its safari site in Socastee outside of Myrtle Beach.
“It’s fitting that ‘Doc’ Antle is behind bars after years of locking up endangered animals he uses in vulgar photo ops. His legal troubles are piling up, as PETA recently exposed his apparent ‘charity’ scam, and the end of his reign of terrorizing baby tigers can’t come soon enough,” said Debbie Metzler, associate director of the app. of PETA’s Captive Animals Act division, in a statement.
Meanwhile, in Virginia, Antle faces two counts of wildlife trafficking and conspiracy to traffic in wildlife, as well as 13 counts of conspiracy to violate the endangered species law and animal cruelty charges related to lion cub trafficking. Those charges are expected to go to trial next month.
Antle has a history of recorded violations, dating back to 1989, when he was fined by the United States Department of Agriculture for abandoning deer and peacocks at his Virginia zoo. Over the years he has over 35 USDA violations for mistreating animals.
Meg Kinnard can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.