Chas­ing the ghost of Don Lewis

Tiger King turned him into a house­hold name. Will he ever be found?

Tampa Bay Times - - FRONT PAGE - BY LEONORA LAPETER AN­TON AND CHRISTO­PHER SPATA Times Staff Writ­ers

Last week­end, a boat with ca­daver dogs and sonar put­tered around a small lake in Seffner, search­ing for the body of Tampa multi-mil­lion­aire Don Lewis.

The search was or­ga­nized by a group de­voted to solv­ing his dis­ap­pear­ance.

Video of the search, posted to Face­book, showed a black Ger­man shep­herd bark­ing an­i­mat­edly in the mid­dle of the lake as a crew filmed for Net­flix. But divers plumbed the murky brown wa­ter and didn’t find any­thing.

It’s been about three months since Tiger King lured 64 mil­lion house­holds into the Lewis mys­tery. The eight-part Net­flix se­ries con­tained Lewis’ story mostly to one di­ver­gent episode in the larger epic of zookeeper Joe Ex­otic and his years­long feud with the miss­ing man’s for­mer wife.

Now a long-dor­mant po­lice in­vesti

gation has sprung to life, as jour­nal­ists, TV crews and am­a­teur sleuths from across the coun­try travel to Tampa, pub­licly pur­su­ing leads and the­o­ries they be­lieve in­ves­ti­ga­tors may have missed or dis­counted two decades ago.

Peo­ple are be­ing re-in­ter­viewed, doc­u­ments re-ex­am­ined, and one po­ten­tial wit­ness who spoke to the Tampa Bay Times is telling her story pub­licly for the first time.

After binge­ing Tiger King, Chad Chro­nis­ter, the third Hills­bor­ough County sher­iff in of­fice since Lewis dis­ap­peared in 1997, re­viewed the case files and as­signed new deputies to in­ves­ti­gate.

The sher­iff called for tips via a se­ries of na­tional in­ter­views, in­clud­ing with Peo­ple mag­a­zine and Fox News host Nancy Grace. He told Grace he was get­ting “good leads” after Tiger King, which resur­faced old ru­mors about in­dus­trial meat grinders and sep­tic tanks and Ca­role Baskin, best known lo­cally as CEO of Tampa’s Big Cat Res­cue an­i­mal sanc­tu­ary.

Baskin, 59, has al­ways de­nied in­volve­ment in her for­mer hus­band’s dis­ap­pear­ance. She said Tiger King is full of “un­sa­vory lies” from un­trust­wor­thy peo­ple.

Chro­nis­ter de­clined in­ter­view re­quests from the Times, but he has re­peat­edly said pub­licly the Sher­iff ’s Of­fice has no ev­i­dence to con­sider Baskin or any­one else a sus­pect. He does be­lieve Lewis was mur­dered in a “so­phis­ti­cated plan” that in­volved stag­ing Lewis’ van at an air­port.

“I’m ex­tremely sus­pi­cious, but not just of her, of this whole cir­cle here,” Chro­nis­ter told TMZ. “There’s nor­mally not one per­son that com­mits a homi­cide. There’s al­ways a cou­ple peo­ple.”

The Sher­iff ’s Of­fice won’t re­lease records from its in­ves­ti­ga­tion, aside from a heav­ily redacted ver­sion of the orig­i­nal miss­ing per­sons re­port, cit­ing an ex­emp­tion in Florida pub­lic records law for open cases. With no statute of lim­i­ta­tions on mur­der, it’s pos­si­ble the agency could la­bel it “open” for­ever.

Some be­lieve mak­ing those case files pub­lic could lead to break­throughs.

“I’ve seen it over and over again,” said au­thor Jerry Mitchell, a MacArthur ge­nius grant re­cip­i­ent whose in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing helped solve decades-old cold cases of mur­der­ous Klans­men and a se­rial killer. He’s trav­eled to Tampa from Mis­sis­sippi twice since Tiger King. “When these re­ports be­come avail­able to fresh eyes, you can go down some trails you wouldn’t oth­er­wise be able to go down.”

Chro­nis­ter has said the orig­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion did not turn up any phys­i­cal ev­i­dence, only a byzan­tine loop of dead ends and con­flict­ing sto­ries from Tampa to Costa Rica.

•••

In a story that’s now fa­mil­iar to mil­lions, Don Lewis was mar­ried and in his 40s when he picked up a 19-year-old girl with blond hair walk­ing bare­foot in the mid­dle of the night on a Tampa road. Their af­fair lasted al­most a decade un­til his first wife di­vorced him. Don mar­ried Ca­role in 1991.

“I fell in love with him im­me­di­ately,” she said with a sigh, in a 2007 in­ter­view with the Times. “He had the abil­ity to make a woman feel like she was the only woman on the planet.”

Don Lewis was self-made. He grew up in Dade City and started out re­pair­ing wash­ing ma­chines and

cars and re­selling them. He turned a lo­cal haul­ing busi­ness into a lu­cra­tive en­ter­prise thanks to a con­tract with CSX Rail­road.

Lewis be­gan buy­ing mort­gages at a dis­count. Then prop­erty on the court­house steps. “Any time he thought he could make some money, he did it,” said Wen­dell Wil­liams, 78, who part­nered on a num­ber of busi­ness deals with Lewis. “That was Don.”

Don and Ca­role Lewis got their first pet bob­cat at an an­i­mal auc­tion in 1992. A year later, they picked up 56 bob­cat kit­tens at a Min­nesota fur farm and brought the an­i­mals to a 40-acre par­cel in north­west Hills­bor­ough County ob­tained in a fore­clo­sure. They called it Wildlife on Easy Street, since re­named Big Cat Res­cue.

(Ca­role’s cur­rent hus­band, Howard Baskin, now helps run the an­i­mal sanc­tu­ary.)

Ca­role grew pas­sion­ate about chang­ing the mis­sion from breed­ing and sell­ing to res­cu­ing. Lewis also wanted to help the cats, but he saw money in them.

About two months be­fore he dis­ap­peared, when they had 132 ex­otic cats, Lewis walked into the court­house and filed for an in­junc­tion of pro­tec­tion from his wife.

He wrote — in all caps on the doc­u­ment seek­ing the in­junc­tion — that the cou­ple had “a big fuss” be­cause she had re­moved equip­ment from the prop­erty. “She or­dered me out of the house or she would kill me, or if I came back she would kill me.”

A judge re­jected the re­quest, say­ing there was “no im­me­di­ate threat of vi­o­lence.” Ca­role Baskin de­nies she threat­ened to kill him and said that Lewis was re­tal­i­at­ing after they ar­gued over sal­vaged junk he was pil­ing on their prop­erty. She said the first she heard of the in­junc­tion was after Lewis had gone miss­ing.

Lewis slipped his as­sis­tant, Anne McQueen, a copy of the court doc­u­ment, telling her to save it, “in case some­thing ever hap­pens to me.”

McQueen re­cently re­counted that de­tail to the Times and shared other things that she has told of­fi­cers, who in­ter­viewed her as re­cently as the be­gin­ning of June.

On Aug. 15, 1997, a Fri­day, Lewis ar­rived at the of­fice trailer he op­er­ated off East Broad­way Av­enue in Tampa. He was pre­par­ing for an­other trip to Costa Rica; he’d told peo­ple he wanted to move some of the an­i­mals there.

McQueen re­called he hadn’t shaved.

He told her that he and his wife had an­other big fight the night be­fore, and he was fil­ing for di­vorce. Then he left. McQueen couldn’t reach him again after that Fri­day af­ter­noon.

Baskin said she last saw her hus­band the morn­ing of Aug. 18, a Mon­day. She re­cently pro­vided the Times with old di­ary en­tries. She would not agree to an in­ter­view with the Times but an­swered ques­tions by text and email.

“Don has been miss­ing since yes­ter­day morn­ing be­fore dawn,” she wrote in an en­try dated Aug. 19, “which isn’t un­usual, ex­cept that he didn’t call Anne McQueen all day, and she said she even paged him into the night, and he still did not call her back. She said in all the years that she has worked for him that he has never failed to call her for such a long pe­riod of time.

“He’s been real pouty and moody lately and ig­nor­ing us when we talk to him, but we never know if we are be­ing snubbed or if he just didn’t hear us.”

Ten days later, McQueen was be­ing in­ter­viewed by de­tec­tives when she said she re­ceived a call from the alarm com­pany. Some­one was in Lewis’ of­fice.

Po­lice found Baskin re­mov­ing files from the trailer that served as Lewis’ of­fice with the help of her fa­ther and Lewis’ handy­man, Kenny

Farr. Farr had cut the locks.

Later that af­ter­noon, Baskin hooked the trailer to a truck and hauled the of­fice to her an­i­mal sanc­tu­ary. She told the Times the move came after her fa­ther saw McQueen re­mov­ing files from the trailer a day ear­lier.

Baskin took ev­ery­thing, McQueen said, even the of­fice chair Lewis gave McQueen for her birth­day. Also gone were Don and Ca­role Lewis’ wills. McQueen said the doc­u­ments had been kept in a box un­der­neath her desk.

McQueen said she later told a Hills­bor­ough County de­tec­tive in an in­ter­view that Baskin and Farr would never have dis­man­tled Lewis’ of­fice un­less they knew he wasn’t com­ing back. She said Baskin did not have a key to the trailer.

That Septem­ber, Baskin filed in Hills­bor­ough court Lewis’ will and durable power of at­tor­ney, which des­ig­nated her ex­ecu­tor and left her the bulk of his es­tate.

McQueen said the will was not the same as the one un­der her desk. That one made McQueen the ex­ecu­tor. She didn’t remember what the will said be­yond that.

At the time of his dis­ap­pear­ance, Lewis’ busi­ness held dozens of mort­gages, ac­cord­ing to one pro­bate doc­u­ment, and gen­er­ated an es­ti­mated $50,000 in rev­enue a month. His es­tate was worth $6 mil­lion.

•••

Three years later, in June 2000, a woman named Tr­ish Payne spoke with the de­tec­tives in­ves­ti­gat­ing Lewis’ dis­ap­pear­ance, she re­cently told the Times.

Payne was mar­ried to Farr, Lewis’ handy­man.

The cou­ple had ar­gued at their home in Plant City, po­lice re­ports show, and Farr pulled a pis­tol out of his pocket and pointed it at her.

Payne told a deputy: “At the time, I thought he might try to shoot me, then he put it on him­self and screamed over and over, ‘Is this what you want?’ be­fore run­ning out the back door.”

Payne re­turned home weeks later to pick up her be­long­ings.

Ac­cord­ing to a Hills­bor­ough Sher­iff ’s Of­fice re­port, the pair tus­sled again. Farr pulled the phone line out of the wall, leaped onto Payne’s back and punched her in the back and shoul­der.

Her son, Matthew Marvel, who was 10 at the time, told the Times that he ran next door for help.

The next day, Payne said she stood be­neath the car­port and told de­tec­tives she sus­pected Farr of be­ing in­volved in Lewis’ dis­ap­pear­ance. On Aug. 17, 1997, the Sun­day of the week­end that Lewis dis­ap­peared, Farr stayed home from work, Payne said she told the de­tec­tives. That was un­usual be­cause he spent seven days a week at the an­i­mal park. Payne said Farr got a call just be­fore 1 p.m. that day and left home with a man she thought she rec­og­nized through the win­dow as hav­ing also done work for Lewis.

The Times could not reach that man to con­firm Payne’s ac­count.

Farr re­turned alone that Sun­day night a lit­tle be­fore mid­night driv­ing Lewis’ van, Payne told de­tec­tives. Farr backed it up to their house and opened the doors to re­veal a pile of pis­tols and ri­fles.

Ac­cord­ing to Payne, her hus­band said Lewis was miss­ing, and she shouldn’t speak his name ever again. He asked her to help him carry the firearms into the house. They stuffed them in the closet, un­der the bed and in the bath­room. She learned the col­lec­tion be­longed to Lewis.

The next day, Farr left in Lewis’ van. Later that night, Farr re­turned driv­ing his own flatbed truck. Payne said Farr told her again not to men­tion Lewis, es­pe­cially on the phone, which he thought might be tapped.

Later, when Payne saw the news about the miss­ing man, she said she asked her hus­band if he had any­thing to do with it. She said he replied, “Don’t ask ques­tions you don’t want the an­swers to.”

Payne said her hus­band be­came in­creas­ingly para­noid and vi­o­lent after Lewis’ dis­ap­pear­ance. One time, she said, Farr told her if she left him, he would stick her “in the grinder like I did Don.”

The Times knocked on res­i­dences in Lake Mary and Mul­berry, look­ing for Farr and leav­ing him let­ters seek­ing an in­ter­view. Over the past few weeks, the Times also made mul­ti­ple at­tempts to reach him by phone, email and text. But he did not re­spond.

Payne said de­tec­tives asked her to tell her story a sec­ond time, at the Sher­iff ’s Of­fice on Falken­burg Road six months later, in 2001. She said she didn’t hear from in­ves­ti­ga­tors again for 20 years.

A few weeks ago, she said, a new de­tec­tive asked her to come in for a video-recorded in­ter­view. Payne spoke to him for an hour and an­swered the same ques­tions.

Records con­firm that deputies con­fis­cated about a dozen guns from their home in 2000.

Tiger King di­rec­tor Re­becca Chaik­lin said she was told by a for­mer de­tec­tive on the case that Farr had been given a lie de­tec­tor test, and it showed he was not be­ing de­cep­tive. In in­ter­views that did not make it into the se­ries, Farr de­nied know­ing any­thing about what hap­pened to Lewis, she said.

Baskin told the Times she gave Farr the guns long after her hus­band was gone. She said she couldn’t remember the date, but it had been long enough that she knew Lewis wasn’t com­ing back. Or, if he was found alive after so long, “it would be ob­vi­ous he was in­com­pe­tent to be car­ry­ing a gun.”

Records also show Farr and his fam­ily trans­ferred a half-dozen prop­er­ties, back and forth, with Baskin, be­gin­ning a month after Lewis went miss­ing.

Farr, 50, has, for the most part, kept a low pro­file in the buzz of Tiger King. He plays only a mi­nor role in the se­ries.

His most mem­o­rable quote re­counts what he says Lewis told him the last time they spoke: “Kenny, if I can pull this off, it will be the slick­est thing I ever did in my life.”

Farr’s ex-wife’s ac­cu­sa­tions have been cir­cu­lat­ing for weeks on YouTube and a pri­vate Face­book group de­voted to Lewis’ dis­ap­pear­ance. That group has turned Farr into the sub­ject of dozens of con­ver­sa­tions be­tween arm­chair de­tec­tives around the coun­try.

Be­fore Lewis dis­ap­peared, Farr had no crim­i­nal record in Florida be­yond driv­ing vi­o­la­tions.

In 2001, he pleaded guilty to do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and im­proper ex­hi­bi­tion of a firearm for the in­ci­dent the year be­fore in­volv­ing Payne. He was sent to jail for 90 days. Over the next four years, he was ar­rested twice on charges of pos­sess­ing or tak­ing metham­phetamines and later went to prison for traf­fick­ing.

After the Net­flix se­ries came out, Baskin wrote a re­but­tal ti­tled “Re­fut­ing Tiger King.”

“I love Kenny Farr like a son,” she wrote. “He was some­one I could trust to keep Don from get­ting lost or go­ing into cages with cats who could kill him, while I worked.”

Baskin has said Lewis ap­peared to be show­ing signs of de­men­tia. She pro­vided doc­u­ments that showed Lewis had un­der­gone an MRI in June 1997, a cou­ple of weeks after he filed for the in­junc­tion of pro­tec­tion against her.

She said she has only heard from Farr twice since around 2000, and once was after Tiger King aired. “But I didn’t call him back.”

She does not be­lieve Farr, who con­tin­ued work­ing for her, was in­volved in Lewis’ dis­ap­pear­ance.

In Septem­ber 1997, ac­cord­ing to court records, Baskin trans­ferred the first of sev­eral prop­er­ties to Farr and gave him a $9,080 mort­gage. Sim­i­lar ar­range­ments were made with a man named John Farr and other prop­er­ties.

Baskin told the Times that Kenny Farr and his brother bought prop­er­ties as in­vest­ments, but they couldn’t “make a go of it and ended up sign­ing most of them back in lieu of fore­clo­sure.” She said she’d been try­ing to help Farr.

Payne, Kenny Farr’s wife at the time, is not sure how her hus­band was able to af­ford the prop­er­ties. She said his pay­check was $350 a week, while she worked part-time.

A month after the cou­ple split in 2000, Farr signed over to Baskin five prop­er­ties in Hills­bor­ough, Polk and Pasco coun­ties. Baskin pre­pared a quit­claim deed, a process com­monly used be­tween fam­ily mem­bers or when lit­tle or no money is ex­changed. McQueen, Don Lewis’ as­sis­tant, said Lewis liked them be­cause he didn’t have to use ti­tle in­sur­ance.

The quit­claim deed be­tween Baskin and Farr was cor­rected a month later to re­flect that John Farr had signed over the prop­er­ties. Again, the doc­u­ment was pre­pared by Baskin.

Robert Stern, one of two real es­tate at­tor­neys who re­viewed the doc­u­ments for the Times, de­scribed the trans­fers as “some of the messi­est con­veyances of ti­tle I’ve seen in my prac­tice.”

He said there was noth­ing legally wrong with the trans­fers. But, Stern said, “the num­ber of trans­fers and trans­ac­tions, the self-prepa­ra­tion col­lec­tively with the fast pace of the doc­u­ments — from fore­clo­sures to tax deeds to con­veyances — all com­bined to lead me to be­lieve that there’s a back­s­tory be­hind all this that does not ap­pear in the pub­lic record.”

•••

Two of the orig­i­nal de­tec­tives on the Don Lewis case flew to Costa Rica to search for him in 1997. One of them told the Times re­cently that they did not find any sign of him.

Lewis’ fam­ily and friends say they were told early on that the po­lice were split on what had hap­pened. Some be­lieved that Lewis left on his own, oth­ers thought he’d been killed.

Jim Moore, who reg­u­larly fed the tigers, leop­ards and cougars with Don and Ca­role, was sur­prised when no one came to in­ter­view him. He fi­nally called po­lice months later. He wanted to tell them he’d helped Lewis fill con­tain­ers Lewis planned to ship to Costa Rica with cars and mo­tor­cy­cles he could sell. Lewis also packed toys, clothes and other items he planned to donate. Moore wanted to tell them that Lewis did not ap­pear to be show­ing signs of Alzheimer’s. Moore said the po­lice lis­tened, but the whole ex­pe­ri­ence made him won­der.

“It re­ally left some­what of a bad taste,” Moore said, “that they re­ally didn’t pur­sue this that vig­or­ously.”

The depart­ment may have been dis­tracted by the dis­ap­pear­ance of “Baby Sabrina” Aisen­berg, a story that made na­tional news shortly after Lewis’ dis­ap­pear­ance.

But McQueen, like Moore and Payne, is crit­i­cal of the early in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“At the time, there were a lot of things they should have done, but didn’t do,” said McQueen, Lewis’ as­sis­tant for 13 years.

She finds it strange that Lewis’ van, found at the Pi­lot Coun­try Air­port in Pasco County with the keys in it and no tag, was re­turned to Baskin be­fore Hills­bor­ough County in­ves­ti­ga­tors pro­cessed it for ev­i­dence.

The air­port’s owner, Dewey Gal­lops, called the Pasco County Sher­iff ’s Of­fice Aug. 20 to come see if the van he’d found parked there at 4:30 a.m. was stolen.

Baskin sent the Times a di­ary en­try from that day. She writes about get­ting a call from a Pasco deputy and driv­ing to the air­port with her fa­ther to pick up the van. The di­ary states that a deputy on the scene was aware that Lewis had been re­ported miss­ing but told her the van wasn’t sus­pi­cious and there­fore could not be fin­ger­printed.

When the Times re­quested Pasco County’s re­port on the van, the doc­u­ment ar­rived mostly un­read­able. A spokesman for the Pasco sher­iff apol­o­gized, say­ing that qual­ity con­trol for scan­ning re­ports was lack­ing in 1997.

In de­fense of Hills­bor­ough County in­ves­ti­ga­tors, to whom the miss­ing per­son in­ves­ti­ga­tion fell, McQueen said they were be­ing led down so many paths, “they didn’t know which way to go.”

After Lewis’ dis­ap­pear­ance, Baskin ac­cused McQueen of em­bez­zling prop­er­ties from Lewis’ real es­tate busi­ness. McQueen said that any­thing put in her name was done out of con­ve­nience, and with Lewis’ per­mis­sion, be­cause he hated deal­ing with pa­per­work or go­ing to the ti­tle of­fice.

In 1998, as part of a set­tle­ment, Baskin apol­o­gized in writ­ing to McQueen, though after the re­lease of Tiger King, she re­peated the ac­cu­sa­tion on her web­site.

In Baskin’s di­ary en­tries, she logged com­mu­ni­ca­tions with de­tec­tives and re­porters over the years. They re­count the­o­ries about who might have harmed Lewis or whether he could have been in­volved in an ac­ci­dent, like a plane crash over the Gulf of Mexico. Baskin said Lewis, who had con­tin­ued fly­ing after sur­viv­ing sev­eral crashes and los­ing his pi­lot’s li­cense, was in­ter­ested in buy­ing an “ex­per­i­men­tal” air­craft with no tail num­ber.

In 2001, a de­tec­tive told Baskin a man had con­fessed, claim­ing he’d helped Lewis’ son, Danny, bury the body on prop­erty Lewis owned in Seffner. Danny Lewis and Lewis’ daugh­ter con­firmed that a man named Michael Stip, who had tried to ex­tort money from Danny Lewis long be­fore Don Lewis’ dis­ap­pear­ance, told such a story. But records showed Danny Lewis was checked into a se­cure drug treat­ment fa­cil­ity at the time. Stip died in 2007. Danny Lewis said po­lice have not talked to him about his fa­ther.

In 2007, when the Times wrote a story about Big Cat Res­cue, a re­porter asked the Sher­iff ’s Of­fice for the sta­tus of the Lewis in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Hills­bor­ough Det. Christo­pher Fox, who had taken over the case, wrote in an email that he had no ac­tive leads.

“I would sum up by say­ing that the dis­ap­pear­ance of Don Lewis ap­pears sus­pi­cious and that no one who might have ben­e­fited from his dis­ap­pear­ance, in­clud­ing his wife, has been or has not been de­ter­mined to be re­spon­si­ble,” Fox wrote.

In the weeks after Tiger King, Hills­bor­ough de­tec­tives re-in­ter­viewed some of the sub­jects from the se­ries, in­clud­ing McQueen.

If deputies are work­ing with any new in­for­ma­tion, she said, they didn’t re­veal that to her. In­ves­ti­ga­tors hadn’t con­tacted her in over 20 years.

Joseph R. Fritz, who said he rep­re­sented Lewis in an­i­mal con­trol and real es­tate law­suits, said he fi­nally heard from the Sher­iff ’s Of­fice for the first time after Tiger King.

The con­ver­sa­tion lasted four or five min­utes. Fritz said Cpl. Moises Gar­cia told him they planned to do more in-per­son in­ter­views after the worst of the coro­n­avirus. Fritz called Gar­cia back a week later and sug­gested he have hand­writ­ing ex­perts re­view the sig­na­tures on the will. Gar­cia said they had done that.

Payne, Farr’s ex-wife who now lives in Hills­bor­ough County, said she has not heard from the de­tec­tive since mid-April.

Gar­cia de­clined to speak to the Times. He ex­pressed frus­tra­tion with all the at­ten­tion, say­ing, “I’d like to keep the in­ves­ti­ga­tion pri­vate.”

•••

If the Don Lewis case goes nowhere, it won’t be from a lack of peo­ple look­ing into it.

As de­tec­tives re-in­ves­ti­gate, CBS’

48 Hours and the I-D chan­nel also are work­ing on fol­low-up sto­ries. Arm­chair in­ves­ti­ga­tors are cen­tered around the Face­book group Don Lewis Cold Case Files.

Late into the night, its 3,000-plus mem­bers pore over prop­erty trans­ac­tions, po­lice records and old news­pa­per re­ports.

Jack “Rip­per” Smith has be­come one of the more rec­og­niz­able names there by post­ing YouTube videos of ev­i­dence and in­ter­views with peo­ple as­so­ci­ated with the case, in­clud­ing Tr­ish Payne. Smith was part of a group of vol­un­teers who helped dis­cover ev­i­dence for Mak­ing a Mur­derer sub­ject Steven Avery. They form the small and ded­i­cated core of the Lewis group on Face­book.

Wild the­o­ries can fly there be­fore they’re vet­ted, and there is a clear bias against Ca­role Baskin among some of the mem­bers. The group also has sur­faced names and con­nec­tions be­tween ev­i­dence that had not been talked about in pub­lic be­fore.

Smith filmed and posted the ef­fort last week­end in Seffner, where ca­daver dogs walked the perime­ter of a 172-acre prop­erty Lewis once owned. The search with sonar fo­cused on a lake in the cen­ter.

A pro­duc­tion crew from Tiger King was there, too.

Chaik­lin, the Tiger King di­rec­tor, said the prop­erty had come up over and over in in­ter­views for the fol­lowup she is now film­ing for Net­flix.

She thinks if there ever was any­thing there, it dis­ap­peared when the lake was dredged years ago.

In one of the Face­book group’s most-dis­cussed videos, Smith ad­vanced a the­ory that Lewis’ power of at­tor­ney doc­u­ment giv­ing Baskin con­trol over his es­tate was forged. The video claims to show Lewis’ sig­na­ture had been traced from his and Baskin’s 1991 mar­riage cer­tifi­cate.

The Times showed copies of the power of at­tor­ney, the mar­riage cer­tifi­cate and nu­mer­ous other ex­am­ples of Lewis’ sig­na­ture to four foren­sic hand­writ­ing ex­perts.

All said the sig­na­ture on the power of at­tor­ney did not look au­then­tic, in part be­cause it lacked flu­id­ity. Two ex­perts de­clined to give an opin­ion on whether the mar­riage cer­tifi­cate was the model sig­na­ture with­out see­ing the orig­i­nal.

The other two, in­clud­ing Rob­son Foren­sic’s Mark Songer, a for­mer spe­cial agent and doc­u­ment an­a­lyst with the FBI, be­lieved Smith’s video was right about the sig­na­ture be­ing traced from the mar­riage cer­tifi­cate.

Songer and Thomas Vas­trick, a doc­u­ment ex­am­iner who sits on the board of the Amer­i­can Academy of Foren­sic Sciences, agreed both of Lewis’ sig­na­tures there ap­pear to be traced from the mar­riage cer­tifi­cate.

“You have three Don Lewis sig­na­tures across the will and power of at­tor­ney that are vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal,” Songer said. “That’s like three peo­ple hav­ing the same DNA.”

These ques­tions were raised after Lewis dis­ap­peared.

Court doc­u­ments show that in Novem­ber 1997, Lewis’ daugh­ters hired their own ex­pert to ex­am­ine Lewis’ sig­na­tures on the power of at­tor­ney. That ex­pert con­cluded they were traced. Baskin hired two ex­perts, who also com­pared the sig­na­ture to other doc­u­ments Lewis had signed and con­cluded they’d been writ­ten by the same per­son.

The daugh­ters de­cided not to waste money fight­ing it.

Smith, from the Face­book group, re­cently drove from Ok­la­homa to Tampa to do in­ter­views in per­son. He told his wife he wasn’t sure how long he’d be gone. He doesn’t work full-time but de­rives in­come from Airbnb rentals and walks with a cane since what he called a “botched” hip surgery.

“Man, I’m no­body,” he said a day after he ate din­ner with Lewis’ daugh­ters, who he says he’s work­ing to help. “I’m just a reg­u­lar per­son that’s been on the bad end of some things. It re­ally sucks when you’re faced with a le­gal sys­tem, or just some­thing in life where there’s no­body that can help you.”

In Clear­wa­ter, he met up with Jim Rath­mann, a for­mer deputy who hosts Real Life Real Crime, a pod­cast that helped solve a cold case in Louisiana. Rath­mann drove from Or­lando, so to­gether they could in­ter­view crim­i­nal de­fense lawyer Kait­lyn B. Statile at the law of­fices of Carl­son, Meissner, Hart & Hayslett.

Statile ad­vised the men to fo­cus on find­ing ev­i­dence of a mur­der and not ev­i­dence of some­one’s mo­tive to com­mit mur­der.

“In my opin­ion, this case hinges 100 per­cent on a wit­ness state­ment, be­cause you don’t have any phys­i­cal ev­i­dence,” Statile said.

If such a wit­ness ex­ists and is ready to come for­ward, Statile said she will rep­re­sent them for free to help get the best deal pos­si­ble. Chro­nis­ter re­cently told TMZ that im­mu­nity “is on the ta­ble right now.”

•••

Re­cently, on what would have been Don Lewis’ 82nd birth­day, Gale Rath­bone posted about her fa­ther on Face­book. She en­vi­sioned him sit­ting in a rocker, scan­ning through “of­fer-up” items, mak­ing deals with a cell phone.

“I am re­mem­ber­ing you to­day and wish­ing you peace, and love, Daddy,” she wrote, “even in this less kind, im­per­fect world.”

An­other daugh­ter, Lynda Sanchez, wrote in an email to the Times that the fam­ily is thank­ful that de­tec­tives are tak­ing a fresh look.

Lewis’ el­dest daugh­ter, Donna Pet­tis, walked into the Falken­burg Road Sher­iff ’s Of­fice in late May to meet with Det. Gar­cia.

He told her he had a de­tec­tive re­search­ing all the land trans­ac­tions, but he said he hadn’t done many in­ter­views be­cause of COVID19.

Pet­tis be­lieves her fa­ther was mur­dered, but she won­dered how many hours the de­tec­tive had to devote to a cold case.

Smith was with her. He shared in­for­ma­tion he’d learned with the de­tec­tive, who wrote it down.

But both walked away dis­heart­ened.

Times (1997)

The dis­ap­pear­ance of Don Lewis has gained na­tional at­ten­tion thanks to Net­flix’s Tiger King.

Cour­tesy of Ca­role Baskin (2009)

Ca­role Baskin is the founder of Big Cat Res­cue, an an­i­mal sanc­tu­ary in Tampa. Baskin has al­ways de­nied any in­volve­ment in her for­mer hus­band’s dis­ap­pear­ance.

Joseph Mal­don­adoPas­sage, also known as Joe Ex­otic.

Times (2017)

ABOVE: Ca­role Baskin drives a golf cart at Big Cat Res­cue on July 20, 2017, in Tampa. Don and Ca­role got their first pet bob­cat at an an­i­mal auc­tion in 1992. Ca­role grew pas­sion­ate about chang­ing the mis­sion from breed­ing and sell­ing to res­cu­ing.

Times (1998)

The dis­ap­pear­ance of Don Lewis was fea­tured in a then-St. Peters­burg Times ar­ti­cle in Au­gust 1998.

Cour­tesy of Jack Smith

Anne McQueen hugs Jack “Rip­per” Smith out­side her home. McQueen served as Lewis’ as­sis­tant for years. Smith is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the case.

Kenny Farr

Times (2007)

ABOVE: Ca­role Baskin watches a play­ful tiger named Mod­nic run around Tampa’s Big Cat Res­cue on Aug. 7, 2007. About two months be­fore he dis­ap­peared, Don Lewis walked into a court­house and filed for an in­junc­tion of pro­tec­tion from his wife.

Times (1998)

A com­par­i­son of Don Lewis’ sig­na­tures, pre­pared by Rob­son Foren­sic’s Mark Songer, uses his will from 1996 and mar­riage li­cense from 1991.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.