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‘Everyone Had a Different Story.’ Tiger King Popularity Leads Sheriff to Reopen the Case of Don Lewis’s Disappearance

7 minute read

There’s some news in the wild world of Netflix’s new docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness: The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has reopened the case of Carole Baskin’s missing husband, who disappeared in 1997.

“I would be foolish if I didn’t take advantage of [the show’s] popularity and put the message out that if you think you know something, you should contact the sheriff’s office,” Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister tells TIME. “This is very important to us.

The seven-episode series, co-directed by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, explores the lives of big cat owners in the U.S. and, to put it mildly, is an absolutely wild ride from start to finish. Complete with an eccentric cast that includes real-life cult-like leaders, Tiger King quickly became the internet’s latest true-crime TV obsession following its March 20 debut. It’s even captured the attention of celebrities like Cardi B and Kim Kardashian West.

At the center of the story is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, a.k.a. Joe Exotic, who operated a zoo in Oklahoma for nearly two decades before being sentenced to 22 years in federal prison in January 2020 for his role in a murder-for-hire plot against Baskin, the founder and CEO of Tampa animal sanctuary Big Cat Rescue, and federal wildlife charges. He was convicted on two counts of murder-for-hire and 17 wildlife charges, including killing five tigers. According to federal prison records, Exotic is currently housed at the Fort Worth Federal Medical Center in Texas.

Tiger King Joe Exotic Netflix explained
Joe Exotic poses with a tiger in 'Tiger King'Courtesy of Netflix

But Baskin has her own complicated past. As depicted in Tiger King, following the disappearance of her second husband, millionaire Jack “Don” Lewis, in August 1997, Baskin became the target of rumors that she had killed Lewis and fed him to her tigers that were perpetuated by Exotic and others. Baskin’s vitriolic relationship with Exotic is at the center of Tiger King‘s plot.

No one has ever been arrested or charged with a crime in Lewis’ missing persons case and Baskin has consistently denied these rumors. In a March 31 blog post on the Big Cat Rescue website, Baskin spoke out against Tiger King‘s portrayal of the events surrounding Lewis’ disappearance.

There are not words for how disappointing it is to see that the series…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.

Now, the show’s powerful dose of popularity has motivated Chronister to seek new leads in the case, which has been cold for years. The sheriff told CNN that there has never been sufficient evidence to conclude that any crime was committed, let alone murder.

Chronister says that he’s hoping that someone involved with Big Cat Rescue, then named Wildlife on Easy Street, at the time of Lewis’ disappearance might be able to offer new information.

“Because [Carole and Don] were so competitive, they were skeptical of everyone who came and worked for them,” he says. “It was almost like each individual employee had to prove their allegiance each and every day. What I’m hoping is that maybe one of those relationships has since soured, maybe [one of the employees has] watched this documentary and been flooded with emotions, and maybe they or anyone else who has any kind of knowledge of this case will be motivated to contact us and give us the piece of evidence that we’re missing to be able to solve this disappearance.”

Chronister, who recently issued an arrest warrant for a local pastor for violating coronavirus-related bans on large gatherings, says that his office has been receiving around six tips about Lewis’ case a day since late last week, but none of them viable.

“Most of the calls have been theories,” he says. “You can tell that people have finished the series and they want to call and provide their theory on who did it and how it was done.”

He adds that he definitely isn’t discouraging people from doing that.

“People calling in with their perspectives may help our detectives see this through a different lens and say, ‘Hey, let me take a look at something,'” he says.

However, Chronister says that there are some details of the case — like the fact that Big Cat Rescue’s meat grinder was removed from the property several weeks prior to Lewis’ disappearance and that its septic tank wasn’t installed until years later — that most people aren’t aware of.

“I wouldn’t know if I hadn’t sat down with the detective supervisors and been briefed on the case because I was intrigued after watching the series and wanted to make sure that we were pursuing everything,” he says.

In her blog post, Baskin also addressed the rumors regarding the meat grinder and septic tank.

“[Don’s ex-wife] Gladys and her daughters had strong selfish motivations to lie and make implications about the meat grinder and Don being buried on the property 23 years ago that have absolutely no basis in fact whatsoever and they continued to do so in the series,” she wrote.

As for the theory that Lewis fled to Costa Rica, where he often travelled, Chronister says that there’s no evidence that he chartered a plane or record of him using either of his two passports to leave the country. He adds that the case is complicated in almost every way and that detectives were met with “some type of obstruction at every turn” following Lewis’ disappearance.

“They went to Costa Rica and interviewed two security guards who worked together at the front gate [of his property],” he says. “One said that he hadn’t seen him in six weeks and the other said that he had just seen him a week prior. Everyone had a different story.”

Chronister says that he’s assigned a detective supervisor to the case to examine any new leads, but that there’s been no real investigative action since the sheriff’s office asked Baskin to take a lie detector test in 2011.

“We had asked Carole to come in and take a polygraph, but she declined the request,” he says. “She said her attorney had advised her not to do the polygraph because it wouldn’t prohibit the sheriff’s office from taking legal action against her in the future.”

He adds that the sheriff’s office has had no contact with Baskin or anyone who works at Big Cat Rescue since Tiger King‘s debut. However, he did ask detectives to reach out to Lewis’ daughters.

“I thought that if anyone was going to contact someone, they would contact his children,” Chronister explains. “So we wanted to reach out to them and say, ‘Listen, you may think that a detail that someone contacts you with is insignificant, but it could be something that we think is of extreme importance so please forward it to us.'”

Susan Bass, a spokeswoman for Big Cat Rescue, says that the organization is hopeful this latest development will lead to a break in the case.

“We hope the Sheriff’s plea for leads will result in new information about what happened to Don Lewis,” Bass said in an email to TIME.

Chronister says that he remains determined to solve Lewis’ case.

“There would be nothing more gratifying to me as sheriff 23 years later than to be able to bring some type of closure or justice to this family,” he says.

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Write to Megan McCluskey at megan.mccluskey@time.com