Carole Baskin is a central character in the new Netflix documentary Tiger King, and to some, she’s its villainess, although she claims she’s been mischaracterized. Warning: This post will contain some spoilers from the earlier parts of the show.
As fans of the show already know, Carole, the owner of Big Cat Rescue Wildlife Sanctuary near Tampa, Florida, has lived under a cloud of suspicions relating to the disappearance in 1997 of her second husband, Jack “Don” Lewis.
The documentary chronicles the feud between tiger lover “Joe Exotic” (real name: Joe Schreibvogel) and Baskin, who positions herself as an animal activist. However, early on, it reveals that Baskin’s second husband, Jack “Don” Lewis, disappeared without a trace, a fact that Joe Exotic uses to cast aspersions on Baskin.
However, what happened to Jack “Don” Lewis in real life? It’s true, he is missing. It’s also true that, according to a Florida sheriff, Carole Baskin refused to take a polygraph in his case.
Here’s what you need to know:
The Sheriff Says Baskin Declined to Take a Polygraph Because It Wouldn’t Vindicate Her
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.”
The Hillsborough County Sheriff is seeking new leads in the case.
“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. Among them: the fact that Carole Baskin refused to take a polygraph test.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
You can read her full blog post here.