Disappearance of Don Lewis
Jack Donald Lewis
April 30, 1938
Dade City, Florida, U.S.
|Disappeared||August 18, 1997 (aged 59)|
Tampa, Florida, U.S.
|Status||Missing for 23 years, 1 month and 1 day|
|Died||August 19, 2002 (legal death)|
|Other names||Bob Martinez|
Jack Donald Lewis (April 30, 1938 – legal d. August 19, 2002) was an American missing person who disappeared on the morning of August 18, 1997, after leaving his home in Tampa, Florida. The investigation into his disappearance has stretched from Lewis's Wildlife on Easy Street sanctuary in Tampa, co-owned by his second wife Carole Baskin, to land owned by Lewis in Costa Rica. No evidence of Lewis being killed has surfaced, but investigators believe it is unlikely that he disappeared on his own. Lewis left behind over $5 million in assets. He was declared legally dead on the fifth anniversary of his disappearance in 2002.
As of 2020, the criminal case is still open. Nobody has been arrested or charged with a crime in relation to the case. Lewis' daughters have recently hired attorney John Michael Phillips and filed a lawsuit against Carole Baskin, seeking information about his death and fraud to documents. Lewis's disappearance was covered in the 2020 crime documentary series Tiger King, which focused on a feud between Baskin and Oklahoma-based private zoo owner Joe Exotic. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has used the popularity of Tiger King to help investigate the disappearance.
Don Lewis was a native of Dade City, Florida. By 1981, he was a self-made millionaire through his real estate and used car businesses. Lewis was married to his first wife, Gladys Lewis Cross, and had three daughters and an adopted son. In January 1981, Lewis met Carole Murdock (née Stairs Jones) on Nebraska Avenue in Tampa, on a night when she fled her house after being attacked by her abusive first husband, Michael Murdock. Murdock and Lewis began having an affair while both were still married. She became one of his many girlfriends and substantially grew his wealth by helping him buy and sell real estate in 1984. Lewis and Murdock divorced each of their spouses and married in 1991. The following year, the couple co-founded Wildlife on Easy Street (now called Big Cat Rescue), an animal sanctuary for big cats in Tampa. Lewis and his second wife clashed over how to run Wildlife on Easy Street. He wanted to breed the cats and operate it as a business, while she wanted it to be a charity.
According to his second wife, who remarried in 2004 and became known as Carole Baskin, Lewis was obsessed with sex and would frequently fly to Costa Rica to engage in affairs – especially when she was menstruating. Lewis told family members and friends that he was planning to eventually move to Costa Rica. In early 1997, Lewis began transferring ownership of his properties in Florida to a Costa Rican company he controlled. In the days leading up to his disappearance, Lewis had bought a plane ticket to Costa Rica and was loading equipment onto a truck destined for Miami.
Baskin has claimed that Lewis's mental health had been deteriorating, and he had begun rummaging in dumpsters and hoarding vehicles and junk. She said he was losing his short-term memory and was sometimes disoriented, and she suspected he was developing Alzheimer's disease. However, Lewis' former personal attorney and a former business associate have disputed this characterization. In July 1997, Lewis filed a request for a restraining order against his wife, claiming she had threatened to kill him and had hidden his gun to prevent him from protecting himself; this request was rejected. Baskin claims that he filed the restraining order because she would haul away some of his junk property whenever he visited Costa Rica. Lewis continued to live with his wife afterwards, despite having sought a restraining order against her. Lewis had told his wife multiple times that he wanted a divorce, but she has said she thought he was not serious about it.
Lewis disappeared on August 18, 1997, after leaving his home to make an early-morning delivery around 6:00 a.m. On August 20, his white 1989 Dodge Ram Van was found at the Pilot Country Airport in Spring Hill, Florida, 40 miles (64 km) away from the sanctuary. At the time of his disappearance, Lewis owned several planes and was known to sometimes fly them even though his private pilot licence was suspended. The keys to the van were found on the floorboard and the van had been parked for a couple of days. No evidence was found within the van.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office "found no sign of foul play" at the Wildlife on Easy Street sanctuary and visited the Costa Rican town of Bagaces, where Lewis owned a 200-acre (81-hectare) park, as part of their investigation. The investigation in Costa Rica lasted five days. In Costa Rica, investigators found indications that Lewis engaged in extramarital affairs and questionable business practices. They also found that two of Lewis's ocelots had recently been shipped out, but their whereabouts were unknown. None of Lewis' credit cards have been used since his disappearance.
Lewis left behind holdings estimated at more than $5 million, leading to a legal dispute between Baskin and Lewis's children. Lewis was declared legally dead in 2002. Most of his estate was left to Baskin. In 2004, Baskin refused to take a polygraph related to the investigation, as advised by her attorney. Lewis's children have volunteered to take polygraphs. By 2005, authorities leaned away from the theory that Lewis disappeared on his own. No one has ever been arrested or charged with a crime in relation to the case.
In 2020, the Netflix documentary series Tiger King became popular in the midst of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Using the popularity of Tiger King, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister appealed to the public for legitimate leads or evidence for the case. Since the release of the series, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has received six tips a day related to Lewis's disappearance. Chronister expressed his belief that a former employee of Wildlife on Easy Street that had a sour relationship with either Lewis or Baskin will step forward with evidence. Chronister reiterated that his department does not "have any type of evidence, not one piece, that suggests that [Lewis] was killed" or that a crime was even committed. He also stated his opinion that Tiger King was spun for entertainment. The case is still open as of 2020.
In December 1998, Pam Lambert of People magazine wrote that there was "a wealth of suspects and scenarios, but precious little evidence" in Lewis's disappearance. The third episode of Tiger King covered multiple theories surrounding the disappearance. Lewis's children have pushed a theory that Baskin fed Lewis to the tigers at the sanctuary, and have criticized investigators for not running a DNA test on a meat grinder on the property. However, the meat grinder was removed from the sanctuary weeks before Lewis's disappearance. Baskin reacted to the allegations saying that there would be human bones as remains if the tigers had eaten Lewis. Baskin expressed her disappointment about the theories to Lambert, saying, "Can you imagine having people think you killed your husband or wife and not being able to prove otherwise? Without a body, there is nothing I can do to clear my name."
Baskin has had a long-running feud with the former owner of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, who goes by the nickname Joe Exotic. Joe Exotic has promoted an unsubstantiated theory that Baskin was involved in the disappearance of Lewis. He created a music video entitled "Here Kitty Kitty" that featured a Baskin-lookalike feeding raw meat to tigers. Joe Exotic has also promoted an alternative theory that Lewis is buried in a septic tank at the sanctuary, but a septic tank was not installed on the property until years after Lewis's disappearance. Other unofficial theories covered by Tiger King include Lewis flying to Costa Rica and living his life under a new identity, or that his plane crashed on the way to Costa Rica. After Tiger King was released, several Internet memes targeted Baskin for her speculated involvement in Lewis's disappearance.
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