Chasing the ghost of Don Lewis
Tiger King turned him into a household name. Will he ever be found?
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.
The disappearance of Don Lewis has gained national attention thanks to Netflix’s Tiger King.
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.
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.
The disappearance of Don Lewis was featured in a then-St. Petersburg Times article in August 1998.
Anne McQueen hugs Jack “Ripper” Smith outside her home. McQueen served as Lewis’ assistant for years. Smith is investigating the case.
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.
A comparison of Don Lewis’ signatures, prepared by Robson Forensic’s Mark Songer, uses his will from 1996 and marriage license from 1991.