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.