What Happened to Millionaire Don Lewis?
Carole Baskin’s husband disappeared without a trace in 1997.
Don Lewis and Carole Baskin via Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office
Just as lockdown began last year, Tiger King dropped on Netflix and became a hot topic of controversy on the internet. Did Joe Exotic really try to have Carole Baskin killed? Why wasn’t anything being done about the issues surrounding animal welfare in the three parks that were featured? Another question on the lips of many was around the mysterious disappearance of Carole Baskin’s husband, Don Lewis.
Jack Donald Lewis was born in 1938 in Tampa Florida, and by the early ’80s, he was a millionaire through real estate and used cars. Don and Carole Baskin met in the strangest of circumstances. One night, Carole had run away from her husband, who’d been hitting her and while walking down a road, a man pulled up next to her in his car and offered her a ride. She declined but he persisted and gave her his gun to hold while he drove.
They began an affair quickly, while Don was married to his first wife, Gladys and Carole was still with her first husband Michael, and they eventually divorced their partners and married each other in 1991, at a local courthouse in a small ceremony.
The next year, Don gave Carole a 6-month-old bobcat named Windsong. From there, the collection of exotic cats grew quickly, and they opened Wildlife on Easy Street, which would later become Big Cat Rescue.
The pair fought over the purpose of the sanctuary. Carole wanted the park to be a charity, but Don wanted to run a business and breed the cats to sell. Don eventually won. Their assortment swelled to 200 cats of varying species and costs began to mount, so they turned some of the onsite cabins into bed and breakfast setups. According to People, for $75 a night, guests could stay at the sanctuary and keep cougars and bobcats in the cabin with them.
As the couple began to breed the wild cats, Don would fly to Costa Rica for work. They planned to move the cats to Central America eventually and Don had a business transporting cars between there and Florida. The other reason for his trips was that he allegedly had a high sex drive and was having affairs with women there. According to Don’s ex-wife, Gladys, Don was ready to divorce Carole, soon after their marriage began.
The 18th of August 1997 started like any other summer’s day. It was warm but not yet stifling, as Don left home at 6.00 am to deliver some real estate signs to his lawyer’s office. No one saw him and it wasn’t until the next day that Don’s disappearance was reported by his wife.
She explained to the police that he’d told her on the 17th that he was planning another trip to Costa Rica and was getting up early the next morning to fly there. On the 20th of August, Don’s van was found at Pilot Country Airport in Spring Hill, around 40 miles from home.
The keys were still in the van but there was no sign of its owner. Don owned multiple planes, that he’d often bought on a whim. Despite owning the planes, he’d had his private pilot license suspended due to three accidents, but he still flew regardless. When interviewed by investigators, the staff at the airport claimed they hadn’t seen the millionaire that morning, nor had any of his planes taken off from their runway. The trail ran cold quickly.
Carole told the police that Don’s memory had begun to deteriorate over the past few years, and she’d often found him forgetting names and places, and coming home with expensive purchases.
In a blog post on Big Cat Rescue, Carole said;
“In the few years preceding his disappearance Don’s behavior was gradually showing signs of mental deterioration. Originally Don, from time to time, would buy vehicles or other equipment at auctions with a view to reselling them, although mostly he never got around to reselling them… He deteriorated into dumpster diving and even got stuck in a dumpster and called me crying because he did not know where he was.”
Despite Carole’s claims, Don’s lawyer Joe Fritz told a different story in the Netflix documentary.
Fritz said to producers that Don’s mental decline wasn’t factual and that he knew exactly what he was doing. Just two months before he disappeared, Don had filed an injunction against his wife that said she’d threatened to kill him. He wanted Carole out of the house, as he feared for his life, but the order was rejected by the court.
While Carole confirmed that the restraining order was filed, she claimed it was to stop her from removing his hoarded items from the house, and that Don went back to live with her despite the apparent injunction request.
“During the week he was away, I would haul off the property as much of the junk as I could. Wendell [who owned the sanctuary grounds] told Don I was doing this. Don tried calling the police to get them to stop me. They told him he would need a restraining order. It is unclear if it was Don’s idea that to get a restraining order he should say I threatened him or if someone like Wendell suggested that.”
Don’s body has never been found and Don was declared legally dead in 2002, leading to much speculation from all sides of the internet. Many accusations stem from rumour and malice, including many from Joe Exotic himself.
Joe believes that Carole killed her husband by feeding him to the tigers, as does Don’s children and ex-wife. In the music video he created entitled, Here Kitty Kitty, an actor who looks a lot like Carole Baskin is seen feeding ‘body parts’ to Joe’s tigers.
via Joe Exotic’s Youtube
The video has over 10million views, and while the comments are turned off, it’s received 170,000 likes.
Carole thought the idea of her cutting up her husband was absurd;
“As Gladys and the daughters did everything they could to make life difficult for me after Don disappeared, they spread this rumor that they thought I had ground Don up and fed him to the cats. And the media loved it. The meat grinder shown in the video was enormous. Our meat grinder was one of those little tabletop, hand crank things, like you’d have in your kitchen at home.”
While Carole was looked at as a person of interest in the case, she was ruled out fairly early in the investigation. When the Hillsborough County Sheriff opened the case, he found no signs of foul play amidst the animal sanctuary or its owner, and the claim that Carole fed him to the cats was never looked into.
Joe Fritz told Netflix producers that the morning of Don’s disappearance, he was supposed to be seeing a plane with the intention of buying it. Joe said he heard a story that Don was killed and pushed out of the plane, mid-flight, into the sea.
However, according to pilot Richard Schlesinger, strangling someone on a plane and dumping their body would be difficult;
“Imagine the struggle involved in strangling a 170-pound man in this passenger seat. Then, if the plan was to push him out the door… that’s a challenge… the slowest this airplane can fly is about 65 mph — and that means winds approaching hurricane strength would be pushing against this door trying to keep it closed.” — in 48 Hours’ Suspicion.
Carole doesn’t believe that he would have been pushed out of a plane, but he could have potentially crashed into the sea while flying. In which case, it would be difficult to locate the remains of the aircraft and Don’s body.
Carole also claimed in a blog post that Don was lending the local Costa Rican mafia money, which is how she activated the Power of Attorney for his assets, to continue running to the sanctuary.
Don owned 200 acres of land in the Central American country and had begun to transfer the ownership of his properties in Florida to the Wito Corporation, the business he owned in Costa Rica.
The police investigating in Florida flew down for five days, interviewing Don’s friends and workers there but never found any evidence that Don had been to Costa Rica since his disappearance. Don’s credit cards were also never used again after he vanished.
Don left behind $5million in assets, including a $1.25million life insurance policy, which was paid out in part to his secretary of 18 years, Anne McQueen. The $5million in assets left Carole and her stepchildren in a legal battle, which ended in Don’s children receiving $1million between them, with the rest going to Carole.
In 2002, Carole met Howard Baskin, a management consultant and the pair married two years later on a beach. The ceremony was small and their wedding photos were comical, as Carole posed with Howard attached to a leash.
Don’s children and ex-wife aren’t so sure this is this story is the whole truth, and now they’re setting their sights on famed attorney Alex Spiro. The attorney, whose clients include Jay-Z and Mick Jagger, isn’t new to the high profile life. He was on Aaron Hernandez’s defence team in 2015, and he was part of the investigative team in Kathleen Durst’s disappearance in 1982. He was also part of the prosecution team against serial killer Rodney Alcala.
"If he were to be found, I would take care of him for the rest of his life and my husband Howie is the kind of person who would understand that," Carole Baskin told Fox News back in January.
Spiro is planning to investigate the 24-year-old unsolved disappearance, starting with witnesses. According to news sources, Spiro already has a crucial witness in the case.
If there was one man for the job of solving Don Lewis’ disappearance, it’s Alex Spiro.
If you have any information about Jack “Don” Lewis’ disappearance, you can call the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office on 813-247-8200.