A nervous, home-bound American population is not shy about how obsessed they are with Netflix’s true-crime docuseries, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness. The nation is enthralled with the story of Joe Exotic, the owner of the infamous G.W. Zoo in Oklahoma and his personal and professional drama with other big cat owners in the wildlife community. Joe Exotic’s story, full of twists and turns, brings the viewer’s focus to big cat sanctuary owner, Carole Baskin, his self-declared arch-nemesis. While the documentary has viewers feverishly binging the series, it’s also left viewers with a lot of questions about Carole Baskin’s second husband, Don Lewis, whose 1997 disappearance has never been solved.
From his platform as the subject of the documentary and through his YouTube reality show about his zoo, Joe Exotic is too excited to direct fans to the alleged bad acts of Carole Baskin, owner of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida. Among a litany of accusations towards Baskin, the one that really had fans arching an eyebrow was the accusation that Carole Baskin was responsible for the disappearance of her second husband, Don Lewis, and covered up his death by feeding his remains to the tigers in the sanctuary. In a time where missing person cases are receiving less attention because of COVID-19 coverage, law enforcement and armchair detectives alike are taking a deeper dive into this cold 1997 missing persons case.
The third episode of the series examines the facts of Don Lewis’s missing person case, documenting his alleged history of womanizing and leading a second life with a girlfriend in Costa Rica. To camera, Carole describes a marriage that at its best was mutually beneficial, and at its worst was insufferable, “Don was not easy to live with and like most couples, we had our moments.” She described a pattern of erratic behavior, which she retroactively attributes to the possibility that Don was suffering from deteriorating mental capacity, possibly from Alzheimer’s. She was also able to confirm after his disappearance that he was being treated for bipolar disorder when she found a prescription for it in their home. It was well-known that Don Lewis was worth millions—although reports of how many millions differs depending on the talking head. Alternate theories of his disappearance have included that he used his vast wealth to disappear to Costa Rica to live with one of his extramarital partners.
Carole Baskin is not the only subject in the docuseries who is revolted by how she is portrayed, and like the others, she took to social media to defend herself as the film started to receive a wave of backlash. In a long media post after the docuseries’ release, Baskin vehemently denied once again that she ever played a part in Don Lewis’ disappearance, citing particular dissatisfaction that the docuseries perpetuated the ‘rumor’ that she had fed her husband’s remains to the tigers in the sanctuary, “The meat grinder shown in the video was enormous. Our meat grinder was one of those little table-top, hand crank things, like you’d have in your kitchen at home.” Baskin went on to say that at the time of her husband’s disappearance, she was engaged in the search and cooperative with law enforcement, “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.” The “rumors from Costa Rica” come from a theory that Don Lewis might have permanently relocated to Costa Rica, where he had visited many times, both for business and pleasure. The rumors go further to suggest that Don had a mistress with whom he was attempting to build a new life. Carole Baskin’s full response to Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness can be found on the Big Cat Rescue website.
The real-life drama of these big cat professionals has taken another strange turn as ABC announced that Baskin would be appearing on the next season of Dancing with the Stars, leading to complex discourse about the ethics of putting a figure like Carole Baskin on the reality television show. Despite the fact that law enforcement was unable to link her to Don Lewis’s disappearance, the idea has left a bad taste in the mouth of some viewers who call the move ‘tasteless.’ Prior to being eliminated from the show, the family of Don Lewis took out local ad space to raise awareness about his unsolved disappearance. The family of Don Lewis, their attorney, and his former assistant appeared in the television spot right before Dancing With the Stars was set to air, encouraging anyone with information to contact law enforcement. Attorney John Philips said that some of the tips that were generated by the ad spot have proven to be credible, with tipsters offering both people and locations to investigate with due-diligence.
The Netflix docuseries has reignited interest in Don Lewis’ cold missing person case within present-day law enforcement. Chad Chronister, the sheriff in Tampa, Florida, tweeted out that he was asking for anyone with information to come forward in the interest of generating new leads in Don’s disappearance. Law enforcement at the time of the disappearance made it clear that Carole Baskin was investigated as a person of interest in Don’s disappearance, but they found “nothing linked her to being involved.” Its not uncommon for the spouse of a missing person to be looked at as a person of interest in their disappearance, but when the lead has been exhausted, investigators move on. Don Lewis’ missing person case is just one in an excess of 800,000 cases that remain unsolved today.
Anyone with information on the disappearance of Jack “Don” Lewis is asked to call the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office at 813-247-8200.
In recent weeks, U.S. marshals have recovered 72 survivors of sex trafficking in Indiana, Ohio, and Georgia during “Operation Homecoming” in tandem with a string of similar operations occurring throughout the United States. The operation concludes within children from a wide age range being rescued from dangerous criminals who intend to traffic these children with intent to exploit throughout the United States and the globe. Of those children, eight were recovered in Indiana, leaving many with questions regarding sex trafficking in the Midwest.
Because cases of sex trafficking are not often reported on in extensive detail, social justice warriors have taken to creating hashtags to spread awareness. Among these is the hashtag #SaveOurChildren which seeks to bring awareness to sex trafficking and the pervasive cloak of criminal conspiracy under which it supposedly thrives. From claims that the furniture company Wayfair was selling children by disguising them as cabinets on the website to claims that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are aiding or abetting sex traffickers by allowing access to record numbers of displaced children, awareness of the machinations of sex trafficking are becoming a more tangible fear for many Americans. In Indiana particularly, learning how pervasive sex trafficking in Indiana has been and continues to be can be a difficult reality for those who previously thought of their state as a safe Midwestern state to live and thrive. Sex trafficking the midwest is underreported and dismissed as fiction by many under the false assumption that sex trafficking only occurs in enormous, bustling cities. Sex trafficking in the Midwest can be just as pervasive, if not more so, due to lack of awareness on the problem.
Professionals across multiple disciplines and capacities, including medicine, social services, and the criminal justice come across survivors of sex trafficking in Indiana at a much needed, if overdue point of intervention. This leaves many professionals and advocates at a loss, as they only have a limited role in preventing sex trafficking before it happens. Kalyani Gopal, the founder and president of SAFE Coalition for Human Rights recently told the Chicago Tribune, “There is significant underreporting in Indiana due to a lack of training and awareness among first responders. Trafficking victims do not identify as being trafficked for many reasons, Mostly, they see themselves as being with a boyfriend or being used by a family for paying bills.” The reality is that in many of these situations, the “boyfriend” is actually a pimp exploiting the survivor through manipulation and violence. Survivors of sex trafficking in Indiana have often previously been subjected to molestation, domestic violence, and extreme poverty, leaving them with few options or cognitive tools to recognize a pattern of abuse and report it to authorities. This tracks with a Fox59 report from 2019 that states Indiana was one of only 20 states in the country that had no new criminal sex trafficking cases pending in the criminal court system. However, experts and advocates alike agree that this is not indicative of a fall in sex trafficking in Indiana. Kyleigh Feehs of the Associate Legal Counsel for the Human Trafficking Institute said in a public statement,
“There’s no evidence that shows that trafficking in the U.S. has dropped so the fact these prosecutions are dropping means there are more traffickers who are free to continue to exploit victims they have in their custody now as well as a future stream of victims. One of the most effective ways to combat trafficking is to prosecute traffickers, so this decline in cases is concerning ot us and we hope that this data will show that there’s a need to prioritize this issue and to dedicate, have dedicated investigators, and prosecutors who are working to stop traffickers.”
Indiana has been unflatteringly called “the armpit of the sex trafficking industry in the Midwest.” The same set of circumstances that garnered the state motto “The Crossroads of America” makes Indiana a hotspot for sex traffickers. The proximity to the city of Chicago and major interstates that extend to the rest of the country make the path through Indiana unfortunately efficient to move survivors through, often undetected by law enforcement. By the time law enforcement becomes aware of any sex trafficking activity, traffickers may easily have slipped out of state and beyond their jurisdictional reach. Sex trafficking in Indiana is not only allowed to prevail under the binds of the state, but also through general apathy or horror. The inherent problem with combatting sex trafficking is that from law enforcement officials to private citizens, adults in the United States would rather ignore the problem with internal rationalizations involving the assumption that law and order successfully curbs these crimes coupled with general apathy and victim-blaming. In addition, the ever-evolving sophistication of sex traffickers, law enforcement also must work within a broken social system where endangered children and survivors constantly slip through the cracks. In Gopal’s words, “No community is immune.”
When it comes to missing children, sex trafficking is often one of the most horrifying culprits. Survivors of sex trafficking are particularly between 12 and 14 years of age, have been groomed over the internet, and have been lured from their homes into criminal clutches. Unfortunately, children who are reported missing by their families to law enforcement as “runaways” may not get the attention they deserve as endangered missing children—simply because runaways do not want to be found, and law enforcement often prioritizes time and resources elsewhere.
Sex trafficking is deeply exploitive for survivors, but they are not the only one effected by the horrors of sex trafficking. Their families are left twisting when law enforcement is unable to recover their endangered child from sex trafficking. That’s why many families turn to private investigators to find answers when their child goes missing. Private investigators carry similar skillsets to law enforcement in investigative methodology, surveillance technology, and fact-finding. Private investigators are typically self-employed and independent of any chain of command, which means they are not tethered by the same jurisdictional or bureaucratic red tape. This allows private investigators to follow leads from state to state as sex traffickers keep moving to evade law enforcement. Many private investigators are former law enforcement personnel who can assist police in a recovery effort once they’ve successfully located a missing child who has been trafficked.
Lauth Investigations International is a private investigation firm located in Indianapolis, Indiana. Their founder, Thomas Lauth, is one of the nation’s foremost experts in missing children. For over 20 years, Lauth has been working with families of missing children, documenting the factors that led to them being coerced into sex trafficking, and assisting law enforcement in recovery operations to reunite survivors with their families. “It is very important for families to seek help independent from law enforcement in tandem with filing a police report. Unfortunately, law enforcement can be often unable or unwilling to help families of trafficked children because they see them as runaways. Having a private investigator involved at the onset of the case ensure that families with missing children have a greater chance of finding their missing children.
Who would fake their own death? While we may find it hard to believe, it’s actually more common than we think.
To fake your death is also called pseudocide or a staged death is a case which an individual leaves evidence to suggest that they are missing or dead to mislead others. There could be a variety of reasons someone might choose to fake their death such as fraud to collect insurance money, those facing financial ruin, those wanting to evade police, or those who want out of a relationship. They all want to start a new life.
Pseudocide has been committed for centuries. Those who attempt this façade come from all walks of life, from ordinary citizens to authors, and even those in the corporate world. However, people that attempt pseudocide lack comprehension of the consequences, and lack knowledge of how to successfully carry their plan out.
To fake your death is not a crime, however, it is almost impossible to do it without breaking laws.
In 2014, Raymond Roth was sentenced for faking his own drowning at Jones Beach in a life insurance scheme and pretending to be a cop while attempting to lure a woman in Nassau County, New York.
He was sentenced to 2 to 7 years in prison and ordered to pay more than $36,000 in restitution to the Coast Guard and Nassau County Police.
On July 28, 2012, prosecutors said Roth was reported missing by his 22-year-old son Jonathan Roth who frantically called 911, saying his father had disappeared in the waters off of Jones Beach.
The 911 call triggered an intense water and air search costing thousands of dollars. No one witnessed Roth swim away and he was initually presumed dead due to drowning.
Prosecutors said in court that the father and son schemed to fake Roth’s death in hopes of cashing in over $400,000 in life insurance policies. The plan was Jonathan would file an insurance claim right away.
The plot was discovered when Roth’s wife, Evana, found emails between the father and son discussing the details of their plan.
Roth initially fled to Florida to hide out but was pulled over for speeding in South Carolina. In March of 2013, Roth plead guilty to conspiracy charges in the life insurance plot.
(Jonathan Roth was sentenced to a year in jail for helping his father fake his own death in Massapequa, New York.)
Roth’s son, Jonathan, apologized in court but was sentenced to a year in jail.
“Pseudocide isn’t inherently a crime,” said James Quiggle, director of communications for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud in Washington, D.C. “But it involves so many built in frauds that it’s virtually impossible to legally fake your own drowning. Frankly, you’ll only be drowing in fraud.”
“You may be stealing life insurance,” Quiggle continued. “Or your spouse is part of the con and files a false police report. You’re also avoiding a large variety of taxes, and defrauding lenders of your home and car. Then when you resurface with a new identity, you’re defrauding every government agency that processes your new identity—and old identity. And you’re defrauding new lenders if you buy a house or car under your new identity.”
Buying a “Death Kit” in the Philippines
As reported by Annabel Fenwick Elliott at Traveller.com, for $630 travelers can purchase a “death kit” complete with documents that “prove” your death. The process involves buying an unclaimed corpse from a morgue in the Phillipines.
One has to wonder if it is even possible to disappear anymore. Our every move is monitored by the National Security Agency, closed-circuit TV, phones transmitting our location, drones, even friend tagging us on Facebook.
Elizabeth Greenwood, an American author of “Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud,” was one of those people. In 2013, Greenwood was 27 years old and burdened with a six-figure student debt.
Greenwood initially went to a man named Franki Ahearn. Ahearn resembled a biker and has the word “Freedom” tattooed across his shoulders. Mr. Ahearn told Greenwood that he helps people disappear, not fake their own death because it is illegal to file official paperwork about a fictitious death, but legal to disappear.
In 2013, Greenwood “died” in the Philippines as a tourist. Several people witnessed her crash in a rental car into another vehicle in Manilla on a busy road. Doctors at the hospital there pronounced Greenwood dead on arrival. At least that’s what her death certificate says.
In reality, Greenwood is alive and living in New York working as a journalist.
“I’m dead on paper, but still kicking in Brooklyn,” Greenwood said.
Why did she do it?
Greenwood began thinking about making herself disappear after she had told a friend about her school debt and they responded in jest that she should just disappear.
“I began poking around online and discovered that death fraud truly is an industry with a whole host of experts and c onsultants to help you go through with it,” said Greenwood. “And there are far more people than you might imagine who had done it themselves, with varying degrees of success,” she added.
She decided she wanted to research the subject.
Why they do it in the Philippines
“In my early research, I dug up a 1986 Wall Street Journal article that quoted a representatives from Equifax insurance saying, ‘In one Southeast Asian country, there’s a private morgue that picks up dead derilicts, freezes the bodies, and sells them for insurance puposes.’ I found this totally intriguing , bizarre, and macabre,” Greenwood told Traveller.com.
Greenwood decided to work with two private investigators who consult for life insurance companies.
“Again and again, they named the Philippines as a hotbed for the kind of theatrical death fraud that involves false corpses,” Greenwood said. “They snigg out life insurance fraud all over the globe—it is attempted everywhere—but they told me some memorable stories about cases they’s worked on in the Philippines, so I wanted to checki it out myself.”
What is the cost?
The cost can vary widely. Generally it costs anywhere from $180 to $630, but it can cost some up to $36,000 to hire a professional fixer to have a professional fixer erase their past and create a new identity.
What does the cost include?
Greenwood stayed in the Philippines for a week, and while there, found some locals who obtained her death certificate from an infiltrator who worked in a government agency.
Greenwood never broke any law by filing the documents with the US Embassy.
Do they need a body to pull this off?
“If you are trying to cash in on a life insurance policy—obviously you’d need an accomplise to make the claim for you—you need a body, since without one most companies will wait seven years before paying out the claim,” Greenwood tell Traveller.com.
In black market morgues, one would need a death certificate, autopsy repport, police reports, a medical report and witness testimony.
Some may go as far as having a funeral for their decedent and filming it to submit to the insurance company, but unessesary.
What if a person just wants to disappear?
“If you’re not committing life insurance fraud, you needen’t go through all the extra trouble, Greewood said. “Staging a more open-ended, elegant excape, like disappearing while on a hike, usually looks more believable to investigators.”
Petra Pazsitka was presumed dead since 1985, and missing for twenty years without ever breaking any laws. German authorities discovered her alive in 2015. The only thing she was penalized for was failing to register herself alive.
As for risks Greenwood took to research her book, “In my case, I wanted to go through the motions to see what it felt like to obtain these documents,” she said. “Filing would’ve been illegal. Obtaining them? I’m not sure, and I’m glad I never found out. But I’m not going to lie, I was definitely nervous flying back to the States with my own death certificate in my backpack.”
Is faking one’s death happening more frequently?
Fraudulently dying happens frequently and Greenwood saw an increase in cases in 2008, when the United States suffered a financial collapse.
“I think it will always happen. People will always look for a way out,” Greenwood told Traveller.com.
It may be easier now because there are more ways such as buying documents on the Philippines or finding a source on the deep dark web, or finding a pravicacy consultant to help.
“But the reason people get caught is time-proof and universal. They just can’t cut ties to their old lives.
Modern day Sherlock Holmes
Thomas Lauth, the CEO of Lauth Investigations International, is a modern day Sherlock Holmes. A private investigator since 1994, Lauth specializes in finding missing persons.
(Thomas Lauth has been a private investigator for over 25 years and works with his team o0f private eyes to solve missing person cases.)
“Sometimes people want to commit pseudocide to reboot their life,” Lauth said.
The work private investigators do is very different than what is depicted on television. It is often 90% routine and can be very boring, but the remaining 10% is filled with surveillance and work in the field making up for that, many investigators say.
Lauth has worked on hundreds of missing person cases due to foul play, homeless due to mental illness or drug addiction, people with dementia, missing children and human trafficking cases, and those Lauth refers to as maliciously missing, who disappear on their own accord.
“People who commit pseudocide or go maliciously missing, are mostly men but I’ve seen an increase in cases that involve women who are primarily escaping violence in their relationship,” Lauth says.
After accepting a case of a missing person, Lauth assigns an investigative team to work closely with the family of the missing person, develop theories, physical search site logistics, create comprehensive data on the missing person, flyer and press release creation, along with a social media presence to help raise awareness of the missing person.
The Lauth Investigations team works collaboratively with NGO’s, government social service agencies, local, state and federal law enforcement, and the local community.
Lauth has worked on over 30 cases of malicious missing or pseudocide cases during his career. “In my 25 years of conducting missing persons cases a number of my cases have been malicious missing adults. Adults who chose to change their life for various reasons from abusive spouse to wanting leave family and kids behind. Its unfortunate individuals choose this route as it can put families in so much pain missing their loved ones and thinking instead they are deceased.”
In Chicago, Illinois, the search is still underway for a missing United Airlines executive who went disappeared on August 6, 2020. Jake Cefolia, 49, is the senior vice president of United Airlines worldwide sales. He was last seen on August 6 before plans to go for a run in his neighborhood. Even after twenty days missing, police have declared they still have no leads in his disappearance.
After he was reported missing on August 8, a search campaign was immediately launched to find the airline executive, including law enforcement, citizen volunteers, and a Facebook group that continues to grow every day. As of August 24, Elmhurst Police Chief, Michael Ruth, informed the press that authorities had yet to find any reason to suspect foul play in Cefolia’s disappearance. One of the scant clues in Cefolia’s disappearance was his abandoned vehicle. After two days of searching, the vehicle was finally located in a Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve parking lot.
Law enforcement circled resources, including over 100 volunteers and K-9 dog units to search the Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. Chief David Peterson of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County told ABC7 Chicago said that they knew Cefolia commonly ran a 10-mile loop in the preserve, “We don’t know for sure he’s still at the forest preserve, but at this point there’s been no contact with family or friends.” The area law enforcement have been searching for the missing United Airlines executive spans 2,500 acres, and required additional deployment of foot patrol, K-9 units, drones, boats, and all-terrain vehicles. “We are hoping to find him. Every time our phone is ringing, I’m wondering, is this the call where we find him.” Peterson told ABC7. In addition to his car, the Elmhurst Police also had a chance to review surveillance footage from a gas station nearby after Cefolia was seen at his home the day he went missing. Chief Michael Ruth pointed out that although the footage is low-quality, Jake Cefolia’s manner of dress was not consistent with a person who was going on a run.
His employer also took notice when Cefolia did not report for work on August 7, and has released a statement pertaining to the missing United Airlines executive, “Our friend and colleague, Jake Cefolia, SVP of Worldwide Sales, was last seen Thursday evening, August 6th. We are concerned about his well-being and have been in touch with Jake’s family over the last couple of days to offer them our support. At the request of the family, we won’t be releasing any additional details at this time.”
Independently of law enforcement, Jake Celfolia’s family has organized their own search efforts, including a Facebook page with over 1000 members where people can compare information and intelligence on their own searches. The police report on Cefolia’s disappearance states that he “had been stressed out lately” due to work pressures, and that his ex-wife had told police her former husband had sometimes fantasized about “going off the grid.” There were also reports that Cefolia might have been feeling despondent recently due to a breakup with a girlfriend.
In a recent article published by CrimeOnline, journalist Ellen Killoran reported that prior to the onset of Cefolia’s missing person case, the missing United Airlines executive was the subject of a criminal probe. Chief Ruth was unable to provide further details, but stated that “a criminal investigation was underway” prior to Cefolia’s disappearance. It should be noted that Cefolia has not been charged with any crimes, and that there are no warrants for his arrest. “We would like to find him and reunite him with his family, and [continue with] the other aspect that we have going on.”
The family of Vanessa Guillén had their worst fears confirmed last week when the Army officially identified human remains as belonging to the missing Fort Hood soldier. Vanessa Guillén disappeared in late April 2020 from her regiment headquarters located near Killeen, Texas. Her remains were found last Tuesday in what has been described as a “shallow grave” by a river in Texas. Authorities have stated they believe Guillén was killed by a fellow soldier, prompting outcry from the community and legislators who have demanded an investigation into the oversights that contributed to this crime.
Vanessa Guillén’s missing person case has been turbulent over the last ten days, beginning with the discovery of her remains by contractors who were working on a fence near the burial site. In a ghastly discovery, investigators found human remains in multiple locations throughout the area. According to ABC13, “When authorities searched the area, they found scattered human remains that appeared to be placed into a concrete-like substance and buried.”
Following the identification of the remains of Vanessa Guillén, investigators were able to identify a person of interest in the case—Aaron David Robinson, 20, an Army Specialist serving with Vanessa Guillén at Fort Hood. Robinson died by suicide on the day authorities contacted him after Guillén’s remains were identified. While it’s clear we’ll never get to hear an explanation from Robinson himself on his alleged role in the murder of Vanessa Guillén, police have received a gruesome alleged account from his estranged girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar.
Aguilar, 22, has officially been charged with a single count of conspiracy to tamper with evidence with regards to her role in concealing Vanessa Guillén’s murder. She gave a second-hand account of Guillén’s murder based on what Robinson allegedly confessed to her when he solicited her help in burying the remains. Aguilar told investigators that Robinson had confessed he had killed Vanessa Guillén in his arms room while on post the day she went missing. He did so by striking her in the head with a hammer. According to Aguilar, he then placed her body in an box and moved the box off-base near Leon River.
Aguilar then told investigators that Robinson picked her up from a gas station and took her to the box. According to what Aguilar told investigators, she then assisted Robinson in dismembering Vanessa Guillén and placing her remains in holes in three different locations near the bridge where they were discovered by contractors last week. Aguilar’s first court hearing is Monday, July 13.
The attorney representing Vanessa Guillén’s family has stated that Guillén may have been sexually harassed before her disappearance, but Army investigators have yet to establish a connection between the alleged harassment and the murder. The family has also criticized the Army for failing to act in the weeks following Guillén’s disappearance, stating that it wasn’t until national spotlight was on the case that the investigation was able to move forward. Major General Scott Efflandt defended against these claims by saying during a press conference, “What I was able to share [with the family] was tempered by my responsibility to protect the investigation so that we could a) find Vanessa; b) prosecute those responsible for this travesty, and in the end be in a position to punish them.”
Vanessa Guillén’s death prompted many in communities surrounding Fort Hood spent their Fourth of July a little differently this year. Thousands took to the streets of Houston last Saturday, demanding justice and accountability for a fallen member of the armed forces in the days following the identification of her remains. The case has sparked outrage from citizens in different walks of life including mothers and veterans who were sickened to hear the story of the Fort Hood Soldier, and how the Army appeared to have dragged its feet when it came to investigating her disappearance and getting answers for her family.