Florida Sheriff Reopens Cold Case Tied to ‘Tiger King’ Series

Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue, walks around the property near Tampa, Fla., in July 2017.  (Loren Elliott/Tampa Bay Times via AP, File)

TAMPA, Fla. (CN) – The popular Netflix docuseries “Tiger King” prompted a Florida sheriff to reopen a cold case involving the missing former husband of the big cat sanctuary owner featured in the show.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister asked for new leads this week in the case of Don Lewis, who disappeared in 1997.

This notice seeks the public’s help for new leads in the disappearance of Jack “Don” Lewis. (Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister via AP)

“Since @netflix and #Covid19 #Quarantine has made #TigerKing all the rage, I figured it was a good time to ask for new leads,” Chronister tweeted Monday.

Lewis, who would be 81 years old today, was married to Carole Baskin, the owner of Big Cat Rescue near Tampa and the nemesis of Oklahoma zookeeper Joseph Maldonado-Passage aka Joe Exotic.

The sanctuary owner and the zookeeper feuded over Maldonado-Passage’s treatment of tigers and other big cats. That feud culminated in a murder-for-hire plot that landed Maldonado-Passage behind bars on a 22-year sentence.

The Netflix documentary series tackles Lewis’ disappearance in the third episode and offers up several theories, including that Baskin fed him to her tigers at the sanctuary. Maldonado-Passage even made a YouTube music video — “Here Kitty Kitty” — that shows a Baskin doppelgänger feeding a tiger scraps of meat while he sings about the alleged murder.

Lewis, a millionaire, disappeared on Aug. 18, 1997. His van was later found at a nearby airport. He was officially declared dead in 2002.

So far, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has received a handful of tips each day since the series was released, Chronister said at a press conference Tuesday. None of the tips are credible, he said.

The sheriff has assigned a detective to the case.

Joseph Maldonado-Passage aka Joe Exotic. (Santa Rosa County Jail via AP, File)

“What we’re hoping is maybe someone has had a change of heart, maybe a relationship status has changed,” Chronister said. “Anything that will prompt someone to call with a legitimate lead, a piece of evidence.”

Baskin did not immediately respond to a request for comment but defended herself in a blog post after the series first aired.

“Don was not easy to live with and like most couples, we had our moments,” she wrote. “But I never threatened him and I certainly had nothing to do with his disappearance. When he disappeared, I did everything I could to assist the police.”

Baskin said Lewis began showing signs of “mental deterioration” before his disappearance. She also said he may have fled to Costa Rica. She strongly denies grinding him up and feeding him to her cats, as Maldonado-Passage and others have suggested.

On Tuesday, the sheriff said the sanctuary’s meat grinders were removed weeks before Lewis disappeared. Chronister also said Baskin declined a polygraph test on the advice of her attorney.

“I can’t even begin to describe how complicated this case is,” he said. “Everyone had their own theory.”

Susan Bass, a spokeswoman for Big Cat Rescue, said in a statement, “We hope the sheriff’s plea for leads will result in new information about what happened to Don Lewis.”

Maldonado-Passage has kept himself in the news since the series began, too, with a $93.8 million lawsuit filed against several federal agencies, claiming they set him up to take his animals.

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