Netflix’s hit Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness delivers on its title and then some. Although it centers on roadside exotic-animal zookeeper Joe Exotic, it pivots toward the equally absorbing lives of other individuals, including one woman who runs Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida. Joe Exotic — whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage — is serving 22 years in federal prison on multiple charges including violating the Endangered Species Act and murder-for-hire. The flamboyant zookeeper, who once ran for president of the United States, was convicted this year of trying to hire a hit man to kill Big Cat’s founder, Carole Baskin, who criticized his zoo’s treatment of animals, and for killing five tiger cubs.
But the docuseries also tells Baskin’s intricate story, which includes the mysterious disappearance of her second husband, Don Lewis, on August 18, 1997. Baskin, who said she last saw her husband early that morning as he was packing up a truck to drive to Miami and then fly to Costa Rica, has long maintained she had nothing to do with her husband’s disappearance, but the series calls that into question. On her organization’s blog, Baskin posted a lengthy rebuttal of the show’s portrayal of her and her work.
On Monday, March 30, Hillsborough County sheriff Chad Chronister, who serves the Tampa, Florida, area, tweeted that his department is open to receiving new leads on the case. Since then, Chronister told Vulture that detectives have been receiving about six tips a day, most of them from rabid fans of the series promoting their theories, which he doesn’t hold against them. He watched Tiger King with his wife and son and was as riveted as everyone else. Chronister took time out of his busy schedule — this week, his department arrested a megachurch pastor for violating the county’s stay-at-home order and holding services — to talk to Vulture about Lewis and his missing-person case.
How much did you personally know about this case when you started watching Tiger King?
I’m gonna be honest with you: I didn’t know much at all. Twenty-eight years ago, when I started, I was a narcotics detective. I was in the undercover world, and I had nothing to do with the case. But I was telling my wife, as we sat down and watched it all, these memories came flooding back. Oh my God, I remember this. I remember them saying this. It led me to call the detective supervisors and the commander over our homicide section and say, “I think we need to sit down and have a meeting. I think we need to garner whatever attention we can from the popularity of this phenomenon that’s going on right now. How exciting is it that everyone’s staying home? They’re doing what everyone’s asking to do. Stay away from each other. So they’re watching Netflix. But we need to take advantage of this.” Because as you watch the show, and you see how complicated everyone’s lives were — and Don Lewis’s life was no less complicated; he’d fit right in — you saw how everyone had to show their loyalty almost on a daily basis because they’re all so competitive. Well, maybe one of those relationships have soured by now. Or maybe this will refresh someone’s memory and we can take advantage of that and get the missing piece to finally solve this missing-person case.
The case has just remained open all these years?
Correct. The last thing we did was back in 2010. We met with Don’s kids, and took samples of their DNA, and entered that into a database figuring if his body was ever recovered, we would be able to garner DNA from it and be able to positively identify him there. He had been arrested a few times, so we had his fingerprint records, we had his dental records, but back then we didn’t have any type of DNA samples. And then in 2011, we reached out and asked Carole to come in and take a polygraph. And she did decline to take a polygraph. She said that her legal counsel said that it wouldn’t prohibit the sheriff’s office from ever pursuing criminal charges on her in the future and that there’s no benefit or gain for her. So that was the last action we’ve taken. Since then, it’s been quiet. We haven’t received any tips or leads, and it has truly become a cold case, for a lack of a better term. And then when the Netflix documentary came out, it’s generating a ton of leads. We’re getting on average about six a day right now, and we assigned a homicide supervisor to comb through those leads. Now, none of those leads have been deemed viable to date. Most of the tips have been from individuals who have watched the documentary, and they have their theories that he was murdered, and who committed the murder, and this is the reason why they did it.
Oh my Lord.
[Laughs] I’ve told my detectives not to get upset, because someone may call and cause us to look at this case from a different lens, and maybe that will help us solve the case. I certainly don’t discount it. But you saw the documentary, where everyone believed that he was buried under the septic tank. Well, that septic tank wasn’t put in until years after his disappearance. That was a dead end. There something about the meat grinders, and people asked, “Why didn’t you get DNA from the meat grinders?” Well, the meat grinders where removed. They stopped using them weeks before his disappearance. But people watching the documentary don’t know a lot of the information we’ve already investigated. At every turn, it seemed our investigators were met with another obstacle. Everyone thought that he took a private plane to Costa Rica or wherever. Well, there was no manifest that he had ever left the United States. For some reason, he had two passports, but neither one of them were flagged with him leaving the country. So that kind of refuted the theory that he was in Costa Rica.
And then there’s the will. I know that was a big point of contention: that the will was forged. Certainly, like you and everyone else, I am suspect of the will. I’ve never heard, in my 52 years of life or in my 28 years in law enforcement, of anyone creating a will that stated “if I’m missing, or kidnapped, please leave the bulk of my wealth to this individual.” So a lot of that was suspect. And then we had someone who worked for Carole who said, “Yes, I witnessed all the signatures.”
And then, later on, she recanted her statement. Our detectives and our detective supervisor went to Costa Rica, and, even there, they were met with different obstacles. He had some business dealings with some extremely shady people down there, almost equivalent to a Costa Rican Mafia. There were people upset because he was having sexual encounters with younger females down there. Some of their parents were upset. He was taking money and clothes down there for them. He was paying individuals to have sex down there. He did have a girlfriend down there, too. But then they’d go to interview two security guards who worked at the entrance of his property, spent eight to 12 hours together every day, and we’d separate them. One would say he hasn’t seen Don in six weeks; the other would say he just saw him. At every turn, there was an obstruction. When I say that Don Lewis’s life was no different and no less complicated than anyone portrayed in that documentary, I mean it.
Well, you just answered several of my questions. Have you seen the blog post that Carole posted to refute claims in the documentary? One of the things she says is that Don Lewis was not really wealthy. What did the investigation show?
We estimate his net worth, at the time, to be around $5 million to $7 million. To me, that’s wealthy. I guess that’s a matter of perspective, depending if you’re living at a greater revenue. But, to me, it is wealth. We talked to some of his office managers back then. And I remember one said that Don was upset that Carole had spent so much money on the cat rescue. He wasn’t happy about that. And he was taking cashier’s checks out that he was taking to Costa Rica in $20,000, $30,000, and $40,000 increments. He would hide money in the clothes that he would take down to people in Costa Rica. It just got more and more complicated.
What kind of business did he have in Costa Rica?
The brothers that he was involved with had a helicopter business. There are rumors that he was loaning them money. But we could never confirm that, because of the money being offshore and maybe being hidden in different accounts. But you can’t get subpoenas for Costa Rica to get cooperation from anyone down there, so it was yet another obstacle that our detectives faced as they were trying to follow the money trail.
In her post, Carole also wrote about how in the months before he disappeared, Don’s behavior had gotten really bizarre. She said he was hoarding vehicles, dumpster diving, that it was suggested maybe he had Alzheimer’s but then was diagnosed as bipolar. Did your department look into any of that?
No, I can’t confirm any of that. None of our detectives have indicated anything like that.
As part of the review you are doing now, are you proactively investigating the case, or are you just collecting tips to see where that may lead?
The case has never been closed. I’ve asked that a detective supervisor be the one assigned to all the new leads that would come in, to deem them viable or unviable and then work with other detectives if a viable lead does come in. I think it’s important. Now that it’s gained this type of notoriety, I’m even more motivated than before, and even more optimistic, hoping that we can bring closure to Don Lewis’s family and try to seek justice if indeed he was murdered.
In the documentary, it says Carole was the last person to see him alive, when he asked her to pack up a truck to go down to Miami to go to Costa Rica.
He asked her to grab one of the trucks and pack it full of supplies, that they were gonna go to Miami and then head to Costa Rica from there. He drove away in the truck and said, “I’ll be back.” And she says that’s the last time she saw him. And that was at 7:15 a.m.
Did you corroborate that, or was that her statement?
That’s just her statement. I think that’s where technology would have helped us with this case. If this would have happened today, you have GPS, you have cell phones. Another thing that I want to mention is that people have brought up how her brother worked here and helped to cover it up. He was a patrol deputy. That morning, she had gone to the store at three o’clock in the morning to get some milk for the cats that she had at the rescue. He wasn’t too far from her. We’ve been able to confirm he had a burglary suspect under arrest, so he wasn’t around during that time frame. We can account for his whereabouts. And other than that, he had no involvement in the case. He was extremely cooperative, just like her. She’s always made herself available and has always been cooperative. I can’t deem her as uncooperative just because we asked her to take a polygraph and she said no. She can exercise that right.
I can’t stress enough that the individuals in that documentary were all … complicated is the most polite word I can use. It’s crazy just how crazy how all their lives were. Don Lewis fit right in. I guess that’s what made it intriguing and entertaining and why it’s become such a big hit.
Everything you’ve just described makes it believable that Don Lewis would just decide to disappear, except for one important thing: that he left his money behind. It seems you’re saying you think it is suspicious, and you don’t believe he just walked away.
Oh, absolutely. Probably the two largest indicators that make his disappearance suspicious is not leaving his kids anything in the will and that the will said “if I disappear or get kidnapped, leave my money to this individual.” I’ve heard of wealthy people wanting to get away or disappear. But I’ve never heard of one disappearing and not taking their money with them. Who can forecast that they might disappear? [Laughs] It all comes back to entertainment and intrigue and why we’re having this conversation.
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