Fans of the Tiger King, the new, pretty wild Netflix documentary, are well aware that there is a surprise twist early on involving Carole Baskin’s husband, Jack “Don” Lewis. Warning: This post will contain some spoilers from the earlier parts of the show.
The documentary chronicles the nasty feud between tiger lover “Joe Exotic” (real name: Joe Schreibvogel) and Baskin, who positions herself as a Big Cat rescuer. However, early on, it reveals that Baskin’s second husband, Jack “Don” Lewis, disappeared, leaving her a wealthy woman but also under a cloud of suspicion. Joe Exotic turns to the Internet to hammer Baskin with unproven theories about Lewis’s disappearance, including an allegation that he was murdered and fed to tigers.
However, what happened to Jack “Don” Lewis in real life? It’s true, he is missing. In fact, law enforcement authorities are still investigating the case, and they say there’s not enough evidence to pinpoint a suspect. His full name is Jack Donald Lewis, but in the show he’s called Don Lewis. The Hillsborough County Sheriff, who has watched the Netflix show, recently spoke in great detail about some of the theories in the case.
Lewis, who was born April 30, 1938 (he would be 81 years old today), was last seen on August 18, 1997, the Sheriff’s Department says. He was a white male who stood 5 foot 10 inches tall, and he was 170 pounds. He vanished seemingly without a trace. Anyone with information on the cold case is asked to call the sheriff’s department at 813-247-8200. According to the Tampa Bay Tribune, “His van was found at a Pasco County airport with the keys on the floor. Deputies searched the wildlife sanctuary, then named Wildlife on Easy Street, and flew to Costa Rica looking for leads. They never found him.”
Here’s what you need to know:
The Sheriff’s Department in Florida Is Seeking New Information in the Disappearance of Lewis
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department in Florida is not immune to the hype over the Netflix show. In fact, it prompted the sheriff to put a call out for more information on Lewis’s death.
“With everyone doing the right thing and staying at home, many of you have watched the Netflix documentary #TigerKing. One facet of the documentary is correct, the disappearance of Don Lewis is still an active cold case. So, with all the attention surrounding it, I figured it was time to use the popularity of the show to see if anyone wanted to come forward with new leads,” wrote Sheriff Chad Chronister on Facebook. “Share this post, share it on your stories and timelines and let’s see if we can’t solve this case together.” The Sheriff’s Department is receiving a half dozen tips a day about the disappearance of Don Lewis.
In an online press conference, the sheriff discussed the case further, and he shed new light on a variety of details.
Carole Baskin Refused to Take a Polygraph Test & Don Lewis Was Funneling Money Overseas, the Sheriff Says
“I think there are a lot of suspicions and those same suspicions stand true today,” the sheriff said in the online news conference.
The sheriff said that Lewis’s family “received no inheritance” and added, “Have you ever heard of a case where a wealthy individual fled, for whatever their reason was, and didn’t take their money with them?”
He was asked why Carole Baskin didn’t take a lie detector test and said, “She denied the request directly and said that her attorney instructed her not to take a polygraph. That even if she passed the polygraph it wouldn’t vindicate her or prohibit the Sheriff’s Department from filing charges at a later date.”
Chronister said he had watched the Netflix show. “I thought it was interesting. They certainly spun it for entertainment purposes in certain directions, I mean raise your hand if you’re not a Joe Exotic fan, if you’re not rooting for that individual even knowing he was a suspect in some of his own dealings, in some animal cruelty charges.”
He said the case is still open.
“The case remains open. We never close a cold case. What we will do is we will assign detectives and supervisors to other higher priority cases where we’re actively pursuing leads that are coming in,” he said. “In this case, because of all the leads that have been generated because of the phenomenon that’s been on Netflix,” he said he decided to “ask that a detective supervisor be assigned to handle all the leads that are coming in.”
The sheriff said there’s been an increase in tips.
He added, “everyone’s home, watching Netflix….we’ve got an increased number of leads. Over the last four or five days, we’ve had six on average, none credible yet. A lot of theories coming in on who they believe committed this homicide, that they even believe it’s a homicide. Nothing credible as of that but that’s why we’re being active as we are.”
He said if you’ve seen the series you know there was “competition between the people who had the different cat rescues, there were a lot question and theories about who was loyal and was someone really there as a spy. These individuals constantly had to prove their allegiance to the owners of the different rescues. Maybe someone has had a change of heart. Maybe a relationship status has changed.” He’s hoping that will prompt someone to call in with a legitimate lead.
According to the sheriff, “Anyone who’s watched this series sees how complicated and convoluted their lives were. Don Lewis’s life was no different, from his shady business dealings down in Costa Rica, to having a girlfriend down there, to funneling money down there in small amounts, taking clothes down there for different individuals, young individuals that upset parents with some of the sexual relationships he had there. It was extremely convoluted, no different than in the series…it almost seems like our investigators at any turn encountered another obstacle. He had two security guards both of them at the front gate of his property. They were interviewed separately. One saying, I haven’t seen him six months. The other saying, I saw him last week and these were two individuals who worked closely together… the last dealings we had were back in 2011. We did offer Carole an opportunity to take a polygraph and everyone else has agreed and she declined. She said her attorney told her it wouldn’t vindicate her of anything so she declined to be interviewed. A year before the detective revisited the case and was able to get DNA from his sons and daughters, which helped us enter into a national database in case we ever get a DNA hit. We’ve tried over the years.”
The sheriff also addressed questions about Lewis’s will. “We have looked at the will… based on my experience…have you ever crafted a will that said if I go missing give all my money to whoever that individual may be so there’s certainly some suspicion surrounding the will. One of the people who testified that the will was certified and that she saw people sign the will, she changed her story later on at a later date. So there’s a lot of suspicion that surrounds the will. We did have some individuals look at the will, but there’s not enough evidence surrounding the will to determine whether it was falsified or it wasn’t.” The sheriff said his homicide section was reviewing this and it was possible that some detectives would be sent to Costa Rica to speak with people Lewis was doing business with down there.
On the polygraph, he revealed a little more: “She refused to take one. We offered her that and she refused. She was the only person that refused to take a polygraph. I can’t say she’s been uncooperative by any means. We’d be required to have some evidence, some kind of missing person, before we’d be able to contact her attorney.”
The sheriff said Baskin’s brother is now retired and no longer works on the Sheriff’s Department. “He had nothing to do with any of this,” said the sheriff. At 3 in the morning that day, he said that Carole had gone to a grocery store to get milk for the cats, and her car broke down, but her brother was nearby where he ended up arresting someone on burglary charges. “So he was busy that night, so we can refute the fact that there was even suspicion that he was a part of it that night. She went home after that, fell sleep until about 7:30 a.m. in the morning. When she woke up Don was already up saying hey listen let’s get the truck ready, I want to fill it with supplies and take it to Miami. The two of them were going to fly to Costa Rica. He left and that’s the last time she says she saw him,” said Chronister.
The sheriff also addressed the meat grinder theory; the Netflix show reveals that some people speculate Lewis was put through a meat grinder and fed to tigers.
But Chronister said that the two meat grinders that Carole and Don had on the property had been removed several weeks before his disappearance. “Now I’m not saying they couldn’t have taken them to a different location and used them somewhere else, but the meat grinders…weren’t on the property,” Chronister said. Thus, there was no ability to test them for DNA, he said.
“Everyone surrounding his disappearance had their own theory. Some people believe it was in a meat grinder, fed it to the tigers. Someone said he disappeared, he was kidnapped. Some people said he was killed in Costa Rica. Some people said it was his son who did it. Everyone had their own theory. Like I said, even with all the theories, all the detectives and detective supervisors back then did a great job…” said Chronister, adding that there was “no evidence to support any type of probable cause leading to the arrest of any of the individuals surrounding his disappearance, and today that stands true.”
Another theory in the show has people speculating that Lewis might have been placed in a septic tank on the property.
As for the septic tank, the sheriff said it wasn’t put in until years later. “The septic tank wasn’t put in until years later, so it’s not even relevant. It wasn’t even there during the time of his disappearance.”
There were no records of Lewis chartering a plane or any manifest showing him going to Costa Rica or anywhere. Neither of his two passports showed him leaving the country, according to the sheriff. He said there’s never been a suspect or enough evidence to cause the arrest.
“Nothing ever clear and definitive to say there’s enough probable cause to say this person was responsible for Mr. Lewis’s disappearance.”
The sheriff said he didn’t think investigators would interview Joe Exotic because there wasn’t evidence he was connected.
“I think there are a lot of suspicions and those same suspicions stand true today,” the sheriff said.
Don Met Carole When He Picked Her Up on the Side of the Road
Don Lewis wasn’t Carole Baskin’s first husband. That title belongs to a man named Michael Murdock. According to Intelligencer, Mike was Carole’s boss at a discount department store when she was 17.
He “offered to let her keep her cat at his apartment,” which she appreciated, and it all eventually let to Baskin marrying Murdock and having a daughter with him, according to Intelligencer, which said that Mike was “monstrously possessive.”
The article paints a bizarre story of how Baskin met Lewis. It says he picked her up on the side of the road when she fled an abusive situation with her first husband. He gave her a fake name, Bob Martin, and eventually she started an affair with him. Eventually, she also learned his real name, that he was also married, and that he was a millionaire. By 1991, they were married.
Carole Wrote a Lengthy Blog Post Denying That She Had Anything to do With Don’s Disappearance
In a lengthy blog post, Baskin denied having anything to do with Lewis’s disappearance and criticized the Netflix production. “Don was not easy to live with and like most couples, we had our moments. But I never threatened him and I certainly had nothing to do with his disappearance. When he disappeared, I did everything I could to assist the police. I encouraged them to check out the rumors from Costa Rica, and separately I hired a private investigator,” she wrote in a section called the bottom line.
“When the directors of the Netflix documentary Tiger King came to us five years ago they said they wanted to make the big cat version of Blackfish (the documentary that exposed abuse at SeaWorld) that would expose the misery caused by the rampant breeding of big cat cubs for cub petting exploitation and the awful life the cats lead in roadside zoos and back yards if they survive,” she wrote.
“There are not words for how disappointing it is to see that the series not only does not do any of that, but has had the sole goal of being as salacious and sensational as possible to draw viewers. As part of that, it has a segment devoted to suggesting, with lies and innuendos from people who are not credible, that I had a role in the disappearance of my husband Don in 1997. The series presents this without any regard for the truth or in most cases even giving me an opportunity before publication to rebut the absurd claims. They did not care about truth. The unsavory lies are better for getting viewers.”
She added: “There is no short, simple way to refute so many lies. If you do want to know the truth, it requires understanding the history of events in the years before my husband’s disappearance and the roles and behaviors of the people interviewed in the series, which I have tried to do as concisely as I can below but still requires a few pages.”
Carole then went into a lengthy discussion of what happened to Lewis.
“In the few years preceding his disappearance Don’s behavior was gradually showing signs of mental deterioration. Originally Don, from time to time, would buy vehicles or other equipment at auctions with a view to reselling them, although mostly he never got around to reselling them. But gradually his hoarding of junk that he brought to the 40 acres the sanctuary now sits on increased and involved junk of no value. He deteriorated into dumpster diving and even got stuck in a dumpster and called me crying because he did not know where he was,” she wrote.
“Back then Alzheimer’s was not a commonly used word. I had not heard of it. Someone mentioned Alzheimer’s to me and I got Don to agree to set up an appointment with a specialist, Dr. Gold. Anne McQueen intervened and convinced him to see her psychiatrist, Dr. Blasini. He referred us to a Dr. West in the same building who was not there, so Don saw Dr. Russell. He diagnosed Don with Bi-Polar Disorder and gave him a prescription to have an MRI at St. Joseph’s Hospital. I did not find the prescription until I was searching his bedside table looking for clues to his disappearance.”
She added, “His behavior became increasingly strange. He started refusing to use the bathroom and defecating outside. He brought in a homeless man to stay in our house. I rescheduled an appointment for him to see the specialist Dr. Gold. But he disappeared before the appointment date.”
The extremely lengthy blog posts deals with many issues and angles, including the infamous meat grinder. “This is the most ludicrous of all the lies. As Gladys and the daughters did everything they could to make life difficult for me after Don disappeared, they spread this rumor that they thought I had ground Don up and fed him to the cats. And the media loved it. The meat grinder shown in the video was enormous. Our meat grinder was one of those little tabletop, hand crank things, like you’d have in your kitchen at home, like the one pictured here,” Carole wrote. “Meat had to first be cut into one-inch cubes like you see here to go through it. The idea that a human body and skeleton could be put through it is idiotic. But the Netflix directors did not care. They just showed a bigger grinder.”
She also addressed the word disappearance being added to legal documents, saying, “Don had told me about people going to Costa Rica and disappearing. Our Costa Rican attorney, Roger Petersen, said the Helicopter Brothers were the local version of the mafia and Don was loaning them money. That is why I included ‘disappearance’ as an event that would activate the Power of Attorney. I am sure attorney Joe Fritz is correct that this is unusual. It made perfect sense in this situation given what I was told by Don and by Peterson about Costa Rica and Don’s dealings there at the time.”
Baskin discussed a restraining order that Don sought against her, writing, “Don spent one week per month in Costa Rica. Don was a man who wanted to have sex daily. He would go to Costa Rica during the week I was having my menstrual cycle. I accepted this as something I had to live with. During the week he was away, I would haul off the property as much of the junk as I could. Wendell told Don I was doing this. Don tried calling the police to get them to stop me. They told him he would need a restraining order. It is unclear if it was Don’s idea that to get a restraining order he should say I threatened him or if someone like Wendell suggested that. Don filed for the order on June 20, 1997, and it was denied.”
You can read her full blog post here.