TIGER King star Carole Baskin’s late husband was strangled in the back of his private airplane and dumped into the Gulf of Mexico, a lawyer has sensationally claimed.
The Netflix documentary captured the world’s attention by shining a light on the treatment of exotic animals in the US – but it also catapulted the mystery over Baskin’s missing millionaire husband Don Lewis into the spotlight.
Baskin, who runs the Big Cat Animal Sanctuary in Tampa, Florida, featured in the seven-part series thanks to her rivalry with controversial animal collector Joe Exotic, who stoked wild theories about Lewis’ disappearance.
At the center of the feud between the two competing big cat owners, is Exotic’s accusation that Baskin murdered her husband and fed him to her tigers in 1997.
Many viewers later shared his suspicions with others speculating that Lewis may have been kidnapped or dropped into a septic tank.
In a new documentary ‘Joe Exotic: Tigers, Lies & Cover-Up’ – available on Discovery+ now – retired cop Jim Rathmann launches a fresh investigation into his disappearance and pays a visit to Lewis’ former lawyer Joe Fritz.
“I had heard that he got strangled with an electric cord from the backseat of his airplane,” Fritz says in the documentary.
“With somebody else flying, he got dumped out over the gulf.
“I heard it from two different sources. It kind of fits the scenario, because he was a pilot, he’d owned planes, he had a license, he lost his licence. His van is at Country Pilot Estates. It’s an unmanned airport, nobody logs you in, nobody logs you out. It’s not unusual for somebody to take off in a plane. So, it all fits together.”
In the film, Fritz claims that Lewis was enticed onto the airplane with a business opportunity, only to be killed and ejected from the aircraft mid-flight.
“He got lured up there to do a great deal on an airplane,” Fritz says.
“He showed up. Our Sherriff says there was more than one person involved. Yes, he’s right. There’s no question in my mind that this was a murder. The question is who did it and who is behind it?”
However, Rathmann questions whether Fritz’s theory holds any water. “Is it even possible to throw somebody out in flight?” he asks.
“If you had to open that door going against 120, 140 knots, and trying to force that door open and push out a person that you would say at least weighed 150, 160lbs, that would have been very challenging.”
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister previously told The Sun that his team had been getting an average of six calls a day from people claiming to have a new lead in the investigation – and while none have yet proved valid, it prompted him to re-examine the original case from the very start, in the hopes of finally getting justice for Lewis’ family.
“Most of them are theories,” he said. “So far there’s no viable leads, but I’m hoping that will change.
“One thing I think we can all agree on is when things become popular, they will likely feel more comfortable, and I’m hoping that someone will now, 23 years later, feel more comfortable to come forward and provide that missing information that we need to solve this case.”
‘Everyone had different stories’
Lewis disappeared on August 18, 1997, after apparently heading to Costa Rica and never returning.
He was declared legally dead in 2002, and despite allegations by Joe Exotic that his wife may have had a hand in his alleged murder, Baskin, 58, has always vehemently denied any involvement in Lewis’ death.
In fact, Exotic took his theory so far that he even produced a music video which features a Baskin lookalike holding a platter with a model human head and pieces of meat on it, while slowly feeding them to the animals.
“It’s so complex and eccentric,” Chronister said. “And Don Lewis’ life was no different.”
Lewis would make regular trips out to Costa Rica throughout his marriage with Baskin – and it’s long been alleged he cheated on her there, while also conducting dodgy business dealings, according to Chronister.
“He had a home in Costa Rica, he had a girlfriend in Costa Rica, he had a property manager there, he had shady business dealings with individuals there,” he explained earlier this year.
While Baskin was due to go to Costa Rica with her husband on the morning of August 18, Chronister said, “per her account, he leaves that morning and that’s the last time that she sees him”.
After searching the sanctuary, police interviewed acquaintances of Lewis’ in Costa Rica but found no sign that he’d been there.
A few days later, cops discovered Lewis’ van abandoned at a private airport nearby.
However, there was no plane missing, and neither of his passports had been flagged – appearing to show he never left the country.
“It was almost like wanting someone to see that he had left the country,” Chronister said.
“Fast forward, we send detectives to Costa Rica, his girlfriend, the property manager, some other individuals he knew, even the security workers, all said they hadn’t seen him.
“Everyone had different stories – and that was the biggest obstacle that detectives ran into – but the common denominator here was no one had seen him [for a while] before his disappearance.”
‘There’s some things that are extremely suspicious’
Tiger King included a series of wild theories over what might have happened to Lewis, from Exotic’s allegations that Baskin killed him, ground him in her meat grinder, and fed him to her tigers, right through to claims he was killed and thrown in a septic tank, kidnapped, killed by business rivals in Costa Rica or even crashed his plane at sea.
“There were some things the show got right and some they didn’t get right,” Chronister said.
“The meat grinders were removed from the sanctuary a period of time before he disappeared. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t have taken him and the meat grinder somewhere else, but that wasn’t made clear.
“Then the septic tank… that wasn’t installed until years after his disappearance.
“But then some things they got right. He did get an injunction against his wife a couple of months prior. He never served her with it, but he did apply for it. There’s some things that are extremely suspicious…”
The documentary details how Lewis had built up a huge fortune, but left it all behind – and that alone has led Chronister to believe the disappearance is highly suspicious.
“What wealthy person – and we believe his wealth was between $5-7million, some estimate it could be as high as 20, but we can confirm $5-7million – what wealthy person have you ever met that fled but left their wealth behind?” Chronister says.
“He had a relationship with his daughters and son, and he left them behind. They weren’t included in the will either.”
‘I certainly believe that he was murdered’
However, Chronister explained that it was Lewis’ will – and specifically, a document granting Baskin power of attorney – that really baffled police in their initial investigation, and continues to now.
The document specified that, should he ever “disappear”, Lewis’ fortune would largely be left to Baskin.
“Who had a will that ever talked about disappearance?” Chronister says, pointing out that it would usually discuss what should happen when someone “dies”.
“What they [the documentary makers] don’t show is, there’s one worker that said she worked for Carole and said she witnessed the signatures on the will.
“Well several years later, she changed her story and said she was pressured to make that statement… But at that point the statute of limitations on a forgery case would have expired.”
While he’s been forced to wade through a long list of conspiracy theories however, Chronister says he remains confident of one thing – Lewis didn’t just ‘disappear’.
“The only theory I feel confident in is that he was killed,” he says. “Now who did it or how it was done, that’s the missing piece of this entire investigation.
“How do you do it [disappear]? Leaving your children behind, your wealth behind, there’s a lot of red flags in this case.”
‘We haven’t heard from her’
While Chronister makes clear Baskin is not a suspect in her husband’s disappearance, and has always cooperated with their enquiries, he says she did previously refuse to take a Polygraph test.
“In 2010 we asked the [Lewis’] children to come in and give DNA swabs,” he said. “We had his dental records and some fingerprints because he’d been arrested a couple of times, but we were missing DNA… so they came in voluntarily to do that.
“Then in 2011 we reached out to Carole and asked her to take a Polygraph, and they alluded that she refused to do one – and she did.
“She said that it wouldn’t benefit me in any shape or form, it wouldn’t vindicate me, it wouldn’t keep you from filing charges against me, I’m not going to do a Polygraph test.
“We haven’t heard from her since the documentary came out.”
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Since the series first launched on Netflix, Baskin has slammed how her first marriage was portrayed, describing it as “salacious and sensational”.
She wrote in a lengthy blog: “[Tiger King] has a segment devoted to suggesting, with lies and innuendos from people who are not credible, that I had a role in the disappearance of my husband Don 21 years ago.
“The series presents this without any regard for the truth or in most cases even giving me an opportunity before publication to rebut the absurd claims.
“They did not care about truth. The unsavory lies are better for getting viewers.”