Hi! We're culture reporter Christopher Spata and enterprise reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton, here to talk about our investigation into Don Lewis, the eccentric, missing millionaire from Tiger King, who we wrote about for the Tampa Bay Times.
Don Lewis disappeared 23 years. We explored what we know, what we don't know, and talked to a new witness in the case. We also talked to Carole Baskin, who was married to Lewis at the time he disappeared, and we talked to several of the other people featured in Tiger King, as well as many who were not.
We also spoke to some forensic handwriting experts who examined Don Lewis' will and power of attorney documents, which surfaced after his disappearance.

Handles:

u/Leonora_LaPeterAnton - Enterprise reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton

u/Spagetti13 - Culture reporter Christopher Spata

PROOF

LINK TO THE STORY

EDIT: Interesting question about the septic tank

EDIT: This person's question made me lol.

Comments: 1390 • Responses: 25  • Date: 

TheRealGnarlyThotep2375 karma

What exactly did Don Lewis do for a living? All I got from watching Tiger King was that he was independently wealthy, left the country for extended periods of time once a month, and nobody seemed to have a definitive answer for where his money comes from.

...also, there’s an obvious overlap between the big cat collector community and the cocaine trafficking community.

Leonora_LaPeterAnton3196 karma

Don Lewis started out as a trucker. He asked his 14 year old girlfriend to marry him when he was 17. He started fixing up washing machines. Together, the couple got them ready for sale. Then he bought and sold cars. At one point he got a hold of some dump trucks and sold them, his daughter said, always at a profit. Then he started a truck hauling business of his own. Ann McQueen drove for him, as did Kenny Farr and Farr's father, John. Then Lewis got this contract with CSX, which needed someone to remove the wheels from storage containers that arrived on trains and to ship them to companies around Florida. Don did this and then kept the trailers and sold them too. At some point, he got into buying cheap properties, then moved to bidding on them on the courthouse steps. Carole Baskin also did this with him. He kept buying property and eventually he and Carole amassed an empire of properties that they sold or rented to folks. Around his disappearance, the business produced $50,000 a month in revenue. When he disappeared, he was worth $6 million, according to court documents.

wontrevealmyidentity901 karma

His trips to Costa Rica, were they thought to be related to this real estate business?

Spagetti13746 karma

Don liked Costa Rica, and he wanted to move the animal sanctuary down there. This was something he and Carole had argued about.

According to Carole:

“By the time of his disappearance he had bought the 200 acres in Bagaces, a triplex in Rohrmoser and a brothel in Limon. Seems like there were a couple of others, but I don't recall. I was later able to sell everything except the brothel hotel with the help of the attorney and my husband Howard, so it had to have been after 2003. It was just too dangerous to even go near the brothel given it was in a bad part of a port town that catered to criminals.”

Carole says that Don had loaned $100,000 to Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho. Camacho is mentioned in this news story from 2002.

beestinggg454 karma

Were you able to talk to Carol’s brother the cop, in your investigation? Do you think he plays a role in the disappearance of Don Lewis?

Spagetti13501 karma

We did not speak to him.

I did request public records to recreate the night before Carole said she last saw Don, which was also the night that Carole ran into her brother, a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Deputy when her car broke down, as recounted in Tiger King.

I'm going to paste here everything we were able to know from the records we received and interviews with investigators below. We ended up not using it in the story. Get ready, it is somewhat long.

Carole Baskin said she saw her husband Jack “Don” Lewis for the last time around dawn on Monday, Aug. 18, 1997. It had been a long preceding night, according to what Baskin said was her diary entry from Aug. 19, 1997, which she recently emailed the Tampa Bay Times. There were bottle feedings of two sickly caracals and a bobcat kitten every few hours.

Sometime after an 11 p.m. feeding, the diary says, Carole went to Albertson’s grocery store for more formula ingredients and trash cans. In Tiger King, John Marsicano, supervising detective on the case in 1997, confirmed that was the story investigators heard as well and put the timing of that trip to Albertson's at around 3 a.m.

In a recent interview, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister seemed to agree with an incredulous Nancy Grace, who said she found the idea of tigers drinking “Borden’s milk” from a grocery store ridiculous, and the 3 a.m. “milk run” suspicious. Carole told the Times it was not milk she needed, but pedialyte. “The kittens were sick and they get dehydrated,” she said. Those who care for big cats all have their own “secret sauce,” when it comes to formula, said Rebecca Chaiklin, who interviewed many of them for Tiger King.

Regardless, Carole said what she thought was a 24-hour Albertson’s was closed. Then her car broke down and she started walking. She could not reach her husband, the diary said, because bobcats peed on the phone cords in their bedroom and she’d unplugged them for cleaning.

It is not clear from Carole's diary exactly how she then came into contact with her brother Chuck Stairs, a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Deputy. “Carol ran into her brother,” Marsicano said in Tiger King. Records reviewed by the Times show Stairs was assigned to a zone that included the section of Sheldon Road that Baskin would have traveled to and from Albertson's from the animal sanctuary.

Stairs was busy and arranged for another deputy to drive his sister home. Carole woke Lewis up when she arrived, she says, and he drove her back to retrieve their overheated car at 4 a.m. Lewis was known as a buyer and seller of cars, often junkers in poor condition.

Back home, Carole slept for two hours until she was awakened by Lewis as he headed out the door to run an errand. Lewis told her to make sure a truck they were shipping to Costa Rica the next day was ready to go. He never came back.

In his television interview with Grace, Chronister dismissed a conspiracy theory perpetuated online after Tiger King: that Baskin’s deputy brother assisted her in a coverup. “Any type of theory of coverup is dispelled when you can track back and see that his actions that night were accounted for.”

Hillsborough sheriff’s records obtained by the Times confirm that Stairs did make an arrest that night in a burglary that took place at an address between Albertson’s and Baskin’s home.

Dispatch contacted Stairs at 3:09 a.m. about the burglary in his zone. He initially waved off that call because he was busy with something else – the records do not indicate what. Twelve minutes later, Stairs arrived at the burglary scene. He headed to the jail with three suspects and was at booking until the end of his shift at 6 a.m.

Records show Stairs was dispatched to two other calls earlier the morning of Aug. 18, as well as a handful of calls before midnight on Aug. 17, but do not indicate the times.

The Tampa Bay Times requested all radio traffic to and from Stairs’ patrol car on that night, but was told those records no longer exist.

SophieHowlSoo451 karma

Can this case be solved at this point without a confession from the murderer or the people who were involved?

I saved the link for reading later, thank you!

Spagetti13695 karma

I talked to Tampa Bay criminal defense lawyer Kaitlyn B. Statile about this. She says no. Here is a long quote from her that did not all make it into the story.

“In my opinion, this case hinges 100 percent on a witness statement, because you don’t have any physical evidence,” Statile said. “So many people that are involved in investigating this are getting pulled down different rabbit holes that are irrelevant. You know, people talk about how they can prove Carol Baskin has lied. Carol Baskin can lie about a million different things, but that doesn’t prove that she killed or didn’t kill her husband. ... Without a witness testimony that someone saw something, knows something or heard something, you’re not getting anywhere.”

By the way, Statile says that if you do know something and are ready to come forward, she will represent you for free, and the Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a previous interview that "immunity is on the table."

There are some who believe that if if the sheriff's office would release the files from the original investigation, it might yield new connections as fresh eyes look at them.

One person who believes this, and who is also investigating Don Lewis' disappearance, is investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell, and he would know. Mitchell's journalism has helped solve a number of decades-old cold cases from the Civil Rights era, and in his work, such files have been instrumental.

The sheriff's office won't release any of the case files, citing an exemption in Florida's public records law for "active" cases, but from what we know it would have been a stretch to call the case "active" before Tiger King came out.

C0l0n3l_Panic312 karma

Based on what you know and who you have talked to, what does your gut say about this case?

Spagetti13642 karma

Only that he is dead, and likely has been dead for 23 years.

cahaseler296 karma

Do you think there's anything major that the show misrepresented about the story?

Spagetti131526 karma

Our focus was really containted to Episode 3, which discussed the disappearance of Don Lewis. One detail in that episode stuck out in my mind. It's a recreation of when Don and Carole first met. Don picked her up in his car as Carole walked on a Tampa street at night after fighting with her first husband. In the recreation, you see a street sign that says Nebraska Avenue.

That was an explosive detail, locally, because in Tampa, many people associate Nebraska Avenue with prostitution. (That association is probably overstated, but it is commonplace here.) But Carole says that is not the street where she met Don, and there are news stories from around the time of Don's disappearance that also place that first meeting on a different street. It's possible that someone who wanted to make that connection told the Tiger King directors it was Nebraska Ave.

Overall I did not come across anything in Tiger King that appeared to be factually inaccurate. It's not for me to analyze what the directors chose to include, and what it may have insinuated or not, but that has been debated and analyzed quite a bit.

I will say that I've been personally surprised with the tone of the discussion around Tiger King online. People really seemed to take sides, for some reason, and overwhelmingly (maybe it's just the places I've looked) they seem to have sided with Joe Exotic, who is in prison for animal cruelty and for hiring a hitman to kill Carole. Meanwhile, Carole, who is not a suspect in any crime, according to the police, has been harrassed and labeled a murderer in online pop culture.

SocioEconGapMinder814 karma

Online poop culture

Spagetti13813 karma

One of these upvotes is from me.

JBBanshee165 karma

What exactly is a culture reporter?

Spagetti13279 karma

Mom, is that you?

Edit: Not mad at your question, lol. Here's a little bit more about what I do for my job. And here's where you can see a lot of my stories. Culture reporter probably means different things at different publications, but I'm basically a general assignment reporter who writes about a lot of different stuff in Florida, usually from more of a human interest and 'what is life today' angle than a hard news angle (but with the same journalistic rigor as anyone). But in these modern times of shrinking newspapers staffs, I help out wherever they need me. But ...

I go to Santa Claus school.

I hang out with Dave Bautista.

I investigate why the city is covered in graffiti that looks like butts.

I create fake holidays about sandwiches.

I try to give people something fun and entertaining as a bit of relief while my colleagues write about way more important things. And now and then, I cover the important things too.

IAmCletus95 karma

Did Carole explain her rationale for taking the will out of the safe?

Spagetti13186 karma

A fight was shaping up over Don's estate. It was basically between Carole versus Don's assistant Anne McQueen and Don's grown daughters. There had been friction. (Carole would later accuse McQueen of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars in property, then later apologized in writing for making that accusation.)

Don's office where he conducted business from was a mobile home / trailer on some property in Tampa that could also at times be a used car lot, junk storage area, etc. Anne McQueen was in charge of managing that office, had the keys, alarm codes, etc.

Carole says that after Don disappeared her father spotted people who worked for Don going in and out of the office removing documents.

So the next day, 10 days after Don went missing, she went over there with her father, Don's handyman Kenny Farr (who continued working for Carole) and some other helpers, cut the locks, and began removing everything for safekeeping, Carole says. Not just the will.

The police showed up at the office as this was happening, because the alarm was triggered, and Carole did not have the code. But Carole showed them the durable power of attorney document, which had given her control of Don's assets.

Later that day, Carole says, they realized it would be easier to move the entire office trailer to the animal sanctuary property, so they hooked it up to a truck and did just that.

That is Carole's story on that.

Anne McQueen, who worked for Don 18 years, 13 years as his close, trusted assistant, said that Don's will was located in a box under her desk, and named McQueen the executor. That box was among the things Carole took home to the sanctuary that day. McQueen says the will that surfaced later in probate court was not the same will that had been under her desk.

RedSongTattoo81 karma

Hi everyone, there are numerous possible explanations to explain Don' disappearance if it's true Carole didn't murder him. One theory for instance, was that he was dumped out of a plane, potentially by someone who had borrowed money from him at some point. Does the team have any wild or favourite theories to explain his death/disappearance?

Additionally, does your team perhaps have any feeling or knowledge which may lead you towards believing that there are any individuals or organisations who are acting as road block's in the investigation?

Spagetti1389 karma

The only thing I'd say, in terms of what I think, is that he is dead, and he has probably been dead for 23 years.

Sheriff Chad Chronister said he believes Lewis was murdered "in a sophisticated plot" that involved staging Lewis' van at an airport.

Lewis wife at the time believes he may have crashed a plan, perhaps an experimental plane with no tail number that he was interested in purchasing, into the Gulf of Mexico.

Copywrites80 karma

Because of the popularity of Tiger King, do you find it harder to investigate? Harder to sift through the BS so to speak?

Spagetti13157 karma

We certainly had to contend with that. There were a few times I had to check to see if someone's story had changed before Tiger King vs. post Tiger King. One of those is a quote we included from Trish Payne, who says her then husband once threatened her by saying he'd stick her "in the grinder like I did Don."

The "grinder" comes up prominently in Tiger King, so I questioned whether that could be something she saw in the documentary. I was eventually able to track down the former Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy who interviewed Payne around 2000, and he confirmed that comments about a "grinder" had been part of her story about her husband two decades ago.

heidismiles43 karma

who says her then husband once threatened her by saying he'd stick her "in the grinder like I did Don."

Can you clarify the pronoun usage here? Is she saying she herself killed Don, or is she saying that her husband admitted to doing it himself?

Spagetti1363 karma

She was fighting with her husband, and says that her husband told her: I'll stick you "in the grinder like I did Don."

viktor_vaughn_DOOM_164 karma

The article is quite exhaustive, it must have been a challenging piece to write. How did you manage sifting through so much information and put together a cohesive piece of journalism?

Leonora_LaPeterAnton63 karma

We focused on reporting new information, things we hadn't heard before. But as we reported, dozens of others were reporting too and producing the information on Facebook faster than we could check it out. The Facebook group Don Lewis Cold Case Files has hundreds of people pouring over real estate and other documents, hoping to find something that someone else missed. Anyway, there were two of us, so we focused on specific areas and dug as much as we could in those areas, to prove or disprove what was being said. And ultimately, we focused the article around the investigation and what law enforcement authorities have or haven't done over the years, adding in any new information we found. We could have gone on and on for thousands of more words. But we had to cut it off somehwere. We're not writing the book. :)

Spagetti1356 karma

I would add that what you get in the story only represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we looked into, roads we went down, people we spoke to.

Also it was helpful that Leonora, who wrote a great story about Carole in 2007, had saved many of the documents and public records from that story.

Hamann33464 karma

Was there an efforts by Carole to thwart your investigation?

Spagetti13241 karma

No, not that I'm aware of. At the start of our work on this story, I called and emailed Carole multiple times asking for an interview. She always declined. I had given up, but weeks later I sent her an email late at night, not expecting anything. Suddenly I get a text on my phone from Carole. From that point on, Carole was extremely responsive, and sent me an answer to every question I had at any time of day. When I asked her about things in the past, she would usually send me what she said was her relevant diary entry from that time period. I should say that those entries would arrive as digital files, or copied and pasted into an email, so I was not able to verify that they were originally from her handwritten diaries, which were stolen and leaked to the media at some point in the 90s, and which she said she has since worked to recover. But Carole was very cooperative.

xxhotandspicyxx63 karma

I saw an interview on YouTube with Kenny’s ex wife. Here she admits that Kenny at one point threatened to kill her ‘just like he Did with Don by putting her through a meat grinder’.

Next day she decided to dip from Kenny while taking the kids and move to an other state.

Kenny received a nice new pick up truck and some real estate shortly after Don’s death as well according to Kenny’s ex wife.

So the question is: have you seen it? If not, the yt channels name is ripper jack media and the date of the video is April 3rd.

Would love to have your opinion on it.

Spagetti1359 karma

The woman you're talking about is Trish Payne. We interviewed her for our story.

Pa1rth254 karma

why don't cops check & investigate the septic tank?

Spagetti13181 karma

Deputies would need a warrant, and would need evidence to suggest something is under the septic tank.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister has said the septic tank "was not even installed until several years after his disappearance."

"Years" does not seem to be accurate, after looking at permit records. I asked Carole "where did the septic tank rumor begin?" then did some research in the county permit site to see when one was installed on her property. Here's what I wrote, which did not appear in the story:

Carole said the septic tank rumor began with Judy Watson, a former volunteer who moved onto the Wildlife on Easy Street (Big Cat Rescue) property in a mobile home in 1997. Carole fired Watson in 2000. When Watson moved onto the property, they had to install a septic tank. (The first permits issued for that mobile home were Aug. 4, 1997, two weeks before Don Disappeared.)

Carole says that a cage for “Jayla Cougar” was never built on top of that septic tank (something Watson has said) but was built "near" a septic tank that was already completely installed and landscaped over when Watson moved in.

Carole says she documented in her diary that the cougar cage was built on May 6, 1997, three months before Don disappeared, according to Carole. The Times could not reach Judy Watson, but tried multiple times.

Hillsborough County building permit records, however, show that the permit specifically for the septic tank for the new, three bedroom mobile home on the Wildlife on Easy Street property was issued Aug. 4, 1997, but the tank was not inspected and approved until Sept. 24, 1997. Don, Carole said, went missing on Aug. 18, 1997.

Anne McQueen says there could have been another septic tank, and that it wouldn’t necessarily show up in the permits. She says her son, who has a business installing septic tanks, was asked by Don to install a septic tank without pulling a permit (Don hated paying for things like permits) but that McQueen forbade her son from doing the work because her he had just received his license and she did not want him to jeopardize it.

The sheriff's comment suggests to me, that the septic tank is at least mentioned in the Don Lewis case file (which the sheriff's office will not release publicly).

All that said, I talked to some people with pretty strong opinions about what happened to Don Lewis, but not one of them has told me that they believe Don is buried under a septic tank.

HHS201944 karma

If Don Lewis is alive, where is he most likely living?

Leonora_LaPeterAnton126 karma

Well he really liked Costa Rica. But ultimately, he lost his property down there as it was sold for his estate. Some people say he buried money and other things and when he left, he took that to survive. Others, like his assistant, said he would never have left all that property and cash behind. He was cheap to a fault, one of friends told me. He dove in dumpsters and wore thrift store clothes. One worker said he offered him a pastry from a box he got out of the dumpster.

one-hour-photo49 karma

You maybe know this and it may me nothing to you, but squatters rights in Costa Rica are extremely strong.

Spagetti13103 karma

Interesting you say that. I have heard from those who've investigated Don's Costa Rica property more deeply that squatters rights did play a role in what happened to some of his property down there.

wadiqueen38 karma

Did Don have a girlfriend in another country? Is so, we’re you able to speak with her?

Spagetti13100 karma

People who knew Don, who rarely agree with each other on anything, agree that Don was with women who were not his wife in Costa Rica.

The sheriff has said that he had relationships with some "young" people down there, whose family may have been upset about that.

Mercat_38 karma

Is there anything that could be done now even if it is proven he was murdered since it was so long ago?

Spagetti1369 karma

Definitely. There is no statute of limitations on murder.

cassiuschurchill23 karma

What do you think was up with how Don Lewis' will and assets were allocated? It seemed like his family was cut off, in favor of Carole Baskin, in relatively shady manner. Do you know anything more about this?

WaffleDogStanley25 karma

According to recent news, the will was confirmed to be a forgery by Hillsborough County sheriff Chad Chronister:

https://variety.com/2020/tv/news/florida-sheriff-confirms-will-forged-carole-baskin-husband-1234624459/

Spagetti1328 karma

Yes, it's in our story as well. Basically, if you look at Don Lewis' signature over the years (and there are many examples of it in the public record because this guy signed a lot of real estate documents) there is a peculiar deviation in the "ald" in Donald that you only see on his and Carole's marriage license, the power of attorney that put Carole in control when Don went missing, and the will that surfaced when he was declared dead. "That's like three people having the same DNA," is how one forensic handwriting expert explained it to me.

Ricta9021 karma

Have you at all entertained the conspiracy that Jeff Lowe is actually Michael Murdock? It's kind of a funny conspiracy, especially being they have similar looking faces.

Edit: Sorry didn't meant Don at first, got the names backwards

Spagetti1320 karma

Ha, I had not heard this one.

DoomGoober19 karma

Can you talk for a moment how you pitched this investigation to your editors? Were they receptive? How long have you been working on this story?

May I also ask how do you question someone if you suspect they were involved in something negative or illegal without losing their trust or making them defensive? Conversely, how do you prevent being manipulated by an interviewee?

Spagetti1331 karma

It's a high interest story. It took place right here in our city. And we felt we had something to add to it. It wasn't a difficult pitch.

In general, I find it helpful to remind people that you want to give them an opportunity to tell their side of the story, to respond to things they feel have been misunderstood about them. Being open minded to everyone's story, as well as being skeptical of everyone's story, is an important part of the job.

And I always try to think through why someone is saying something, not just what they're saying.

Reed_Solomon16 karma

If I want to find out who murdered someone, is it better to hire a detective, documentary producers, or leave it to the police?

Spagetti1341 karma

I don't know but Netflix definitely has the most money to devote to it. The co-director of Tiger King, Rebecca Chaiklin, is shooting a follow up right now, and they have a team that includes multiple people in Costa Rica.

Fernxtwo10 karma

What's your favourite potato based dish?

Spagetti1322 karma

McDonald's fries.

leofwing3 karma

Was Carole at any point a suspect in this case? What absolved her?

Spagetti136 karma

The sheriff's office has said there was never any evidence against Carole.