Oklahoma coverage

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Oklahoma City

A former Oklahoma zookeeper sentenced to 22 years in prison for his role in a murder-for-hire plot and violating federal wildlife law has formally requested a pardon, the Associated Press reported.

Attorneys for Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as “Joe Exotic,” filed his application Tuesday with the U.S. Department of Justice. In it, attorneys for Maldonado-Passage said he was “railroaded and betrayed” by others. The application also includes several character affidavits, letters of support and various trial documents, according to AP.

Maldonado-Passage was convicted last year of trying to arrange the killing of a Florida animal sanctuary founder, Carole Baskin, who criticized his treatment of animals. Baskin wasn’t harmed. Maldonado-Passage also was convicted of killing five tigers, selling tiger covers and falsifying wildlife records, AP reported.

Maldonado-Passage currently is housed at the Federal Medical Center, a 1,500-inmate facility in Fort Worth, Texas, according to AP.

Oklahoma City

A judge has set a trial date for a legal battle involving Oklahoma’s attempt to review financial records from a private company which manages a public charter school, the Associated Press reported.

District Judge Natalie Mai set the trail date for December 16. State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd said Epic Youth Services, which manages Epic Charter Schools, has refused to provide her office with records of Epic’s Learning Fund — a bank account which pays $1,000 per student for extracurricular activities, technology costs and supplemental curricula, according to AP.

State investigators alleged Epic used the fund to embezzle taxpayer funds. Epic has denied any wrongdoing. Attorneys representing Epic Youth said those funds no longer are public once they’re paid to a private company, and they shouldn’t be submitted for the audit, AP reported.

The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, which oversees the Epic One-on-One virtual school, argued in a friend-of-the-court brief state auditors should have access to those records, according to AP.

Oklahoma City

Philip James Heath, of Lawton, has been sentenced to serve 96 months in federal prison for possession of illegal explosives and possession of multiple firearms after previously having been convicted of a felony, according to a release from the United States Department of Justice.

January 30, 2019, Lawton police officers responded to a 911 call and ultimately discovered multiple firearms inside Heath’s residence. Because of additional materials discovered at the scene, the Lawton Police Department was then assisted in the investigation by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the FBI Oklahoma City Division’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, according the DOJ.

In February 2019, Heath was charged by criminal complaint with being a convicted felon in possession of multiple firearms. April 2019, a federal grand jury returned a two-count indictment which alleged illegal possession of firearms and two lengths of detonating cord among other items. Wednesday, Heath was sentenced to 8 years in federal prison and 3 years of supervised release. Heath also was ordered to forfeit the items listed in the indictment, the DOJ reported.

Stillwater

The Oklahoma State University Department of Athletics is undergoing immediate cuts in personnel and operating budget due to fiscal challenges triggered by COVID-19, the university’s athletic department announced Wednesday.

The personnel decisions, along with previous cuts in the operating budget and a hiring freeze keeps nine positions vacant for the foreseeable future, will remove about $13 million for OSU’s 2020-21 budget. The payroll cutbacks will take place in the form of furloughs, salary reductions and layoffs and affect about 232 of the department’s 241 employees, according to the university.

Ten department employees were laid off Wednesday. Sixty-six employees will begin participating in a furlough program beginning September 16. Another 151 employees will see a reduction in their salaries beginning this month. The salary cuts range from 2.5 percent to 25 percent with the department’s highest paid employees taking the biggest cuts in pay, the university reported.

“These cuts don’t solve the problem. We still are facing a budget deficit estimated to be around $30 million, which may require additional measures in the coming months. However, we exist to serve our student-athletes,” Athletic Director Mike Holder said. “Their academics, health, safety and their ability to compete remain our top priorities and will not be compromised.”

Hugo

Wednesday, agents from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation arrested 71-year-old Jeffrey Lyn Pierce, of Hugo, for first-degree murder in the death of his wife — 48-year-old Ronnie Ranea Fitzpatrick-Pierce, the OSBI said in a release.

May 7, 2020, OSBI was requested by the Choctaw County Sheriff’s Office to assist in the homicide investigation. The investigation revealed Pierce stabbed Fitzpatrick-Pierce multiple times during a domestic violence incident at the couple’s home, and his action were not justified, according to OSBI.

The Choctaw County District Attorney’s Office filed one count of first-degree murder with malice intent against Pierce. September 9, 2020, OSBI agents, assisted by Choctaw County Sheriff Terry Park, took Pierce into custody at his home southeast of Hugo. Pierce was booked into the Choctaw County jail and has been denied bond at this time, OSBI reported.