On August 18, 1997, Don Lewis left his Tampa, FL, home and disappeared forever. But what happened to Carole Baskin's husband? The police found his car at a private airport, but that didn't stop Lewis's family from pointing the finger at his second wife, Carole Baskin. As police scoured the 69-acre wildlife sanctuary Lewis and Baskin owned, they found no traces of the missing person. The search even went international, with Florida police officers flying south to Costa Rica to look for Lewis.
For decades, the case languished with no new evidence - until 2020, when the Don Lewis cold case hit the headlines again thanks to the popularity of the Netflix true crime series Tiger King. But did Carole really off her husband and feed him to the tigers? Or was there more to the story?
- Photo: Netflix
Sheriff Chad Chronister Confirmed Don Lewis's Will Was Forged
Joseph Fritz, Don Lewis's former friend and lawyer, told Nancy Grace in May 2020 that he suspected the signature on Lewis's last will and testament was forged. During an interview with WTSP in Florida on June 2, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister confirmed, "They had two experts deem it 100% a forgery," with the stipulation that his department "knew that before."
According to the Clarion-Ledger newspaper, the notary listed on the will does not remember authenticating the document. Handwriting expert Thomas Vastrick said, "It’s always possible one was genuine, and one was traced. They’re all virtually identical. They’re all from a model signature."
- Photo: Netflix
‘Tiger King’ Made The Disappearance Of Carole Baskin’s Husband National News
In 2020, Tiger King introduced America to Joe Exotic, Doc Antle, and the world of private big cat ownership. In the first episode, the series also introduced Carole Baskin, the owner of Big Cat Rescue and the target in a complicated murder-for-hire plot.
While the series first portrayed Baskin as a critic of Joe Exotic and his fellow tiger owners, episode three revealed Baskin's own complicated past.
In August 1997, Baskin's husband disappeared, and rumors swirled for years that she murdered him. Joe Exotic even sang a song accusing Baskin of just that.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister says the case seemed fishy from the start. "The will said, 'If I disappear or get kidnapped, leave my money to this individual.' I’ve heard of wealthy people wanting to get away or disappear. But I've never heard of one disappearing and not taking their money with them. Who can forecast that they might disappear?"
Don Lewis's Children Suspect Carole Baskin Fed Him To Tigers
From the beginning, Don Lewis's children suspected Carole Baskin of murder. As Donna Pettis told People magazine in 1998, "It’s a perfect scenario to dispose of someone."
Baskin not only fed large amounts of meat to the tigers in her wildlife sanctuary, she also had a meat grinder. Pettis said, "We were upset that the cops didn't test the DNA on the meat grinder.”
In her defense, Baskin told People: “My tigers eat meat; they don't eat people. There would be bones and remains of my husband out there. I'm amazed that people would even think such a thing.”
In 2020, Baskin called the meat grinder theory "the most ludicrous of all the lies."
Carole Baskin Believes Lewis Staged His Disappearance
Baskin had her own theory behind her husband's disappearance. According to her blog, Lewis visited Costa Rica for one week every month. When he vanished, Baskin told police that Lewis had probably gone to Costa Rica.
Don Lewis was a sex addict who read at a first-grade level, Baskin said. His visits to Costa Rica coincided with his wife's menstrual cycle - and even she knew he had a girlfriend in Costa Rica.
Baskin also suggested Lewis suffered from dementia. "He deteriorated into dumpster diving and even got stuck in a dumpster and called me crying because he did not know where he was," Baskin claimed.
Don Lewis's Car Was Found At An Airport Two Days After He Was Reported Missing
The day after Don Lewis disappeared, his car was found at a local airport. However, police found no record of Lewis getting on a plane or leaving the country. Although Lewis had two passports, neither was flagged crossing an international border.
Still, the Sheriff's Office sent detectives to Costa Rica to search for Lewis. There, they met two of Lewis's security guards, who gave vastly different stories on when they'd last seen him.
The sheriff concluded that Lewis had "shady business dealings" in Costa Rica.
Efforts To Find Don Lewis In Costa Rica Were Unsuccessful
Why did Don Lewis's will contain a clause for his disappearance? Carole Baskin claims it was because of his dealings with the Costa Rican mafia.
"Don had told me about people going to Costa Rica and disappearing," Baskin wrote in 2020. He'd been lending people money in the country, so Baskin wanted the will to cover disappearance. "It made perfect sense in this situation," she argued.
When police visited Costa Rica, they faced new obstacles. The sheriff admits, "He had some business dealings with some extremely shady people down there, almost equivalent to a Costa Rican Mafia."
In addition, the police found evidence that Lewis was paying people for sex in Costa Rica. "There were people upset because he was having sexual encounters with younger females down there. Some of their parents were upset."
But the investigation in Costa Rica didn't turn up conclusive evidence on Lewis's case.