Netflix’s new docuseries “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” is full of drama, all involving big cat people. While it focuses primarily on eccentric Oklahoma zookeeper Joe Exotic and his downfall for plotting the murder of animal sanctuary operator Carole Baskin, it also dives into the mysterious disappearance of Baskin’s husband.
Exotic, who was born Joseph Schreibvogel, is currently serving 22 years for trying to hire a hitman to murder Baskin — founder of the Tampa, Florida-based Big Cat Rescue — with whom he'd been in a brutal years-long feud.
During this rivalry, Exotic suggested that his nemesis killed her former husband. He even made a country music video featuring a Baskin lookalike feeding what is meant to be her spouse's remains to tigers. She has vehemently denied those allegations.
Her multi-millionaire husband Jack Donald Lewis — who went by Don Lewis — did vanish without a trace back on Aug. 18, 1997. Two days after Baskin reported him missing, his van was found at an airport about 40 miles from Tampa, People reported in 1998. Baskin claimed that the night before he vanished, he told her he had to wake up very early to transport cars to Costa Rica, where he had also envisioned moving their cub-breeding operation to.
“He just literally vanished into thin air,” Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department patrol sergeant Greg Thomas, who worked homicide and cold cases for the department for years, told Oxygen.com.
The circumstances surrounding his disappearance have sparked all kinds of theories and rumors.
What was the state of Lewis and Baskin's relationship?
At the time Lewis vanished, he and Baskin were running Wildlife on Easy Street, a sanctuary for exotic cats in Tampa. However, Baskin admitted in the docuseries that they clashed over whether to breed the cats; for her it was about caring for animals she loved and for Lewis it was a business, she said.
Amid such disagreements, Lewis' ex-wife Gladys Lewis Clark told “Tiger King” producers that Lewis wanted to divorce Baskin.
Baskin refuted that.
"We were not heading for divorce," she told Oxygen.com. "Don was suffering mentally and I was desperately trying to get him help."
She has claimed that Lewis' mind was deteriorating and suggested both in the docuseries and a subsequent blog post addressing the series that he may have had Alzheimer's.
"In the few years preceding his disappearance Don’s behavior was gradually showing signs of mental deterioration," Baskin wrote.
She said he was having trouble with short-term memory, had taken to hoarding vehicles and "junk" and had "deteriorated into dumpster diving" to feed those impulses. In one instance, she said, he "even got stuck in a dumpster and called me crying because he did not know where he was."
Lewis' former attorney Joe Fritz painted a different picture in the docuseries, however, saying his former client knew exactly what was going on. Wendell Williams, Lewis' former business associate, likewise told producers the claims of mental deterioration were "all bull," and accused Baskin of "setting the stage for the dementia and Alzheimer's" so it would make more sense if he just up and vanished.
Did Baskin threaten Lewis' life?
Two months before Lewis vanished, he filed court documents seeking a domestic violence injunction against Baskin, claiming she threatened to kill him, according to the docuseries. Baskin doesn't deny the fact that he sought a restraining order, but she says she never threatened to kill him.
Lewis’ daughter Gale Rathbone claimed in the docuseries that Lewis was not the type to involve police unless he was actually scared. Mark McCarty, who runs McCarthy's Wildlife Sanctuary, told producers that a month before Lewis vanished, "he did mention to me that he felt his life was in danger.”
Baskin wrote in response: "McCarthy said Don told him his life was in danger, but didn’t say by whom, and if he was in danger, why did he bring home more cubs for me to have to raise?"
Furthermore, she said the restraining order was Lewis' attempt to stop her from throwing out the junk that he'd been hoarding on the property. As for the death threat claim, she theorized that he may have said that so a judge would take his order more seriously.
The restraining order against Baskin was denied.
Did Lewis sneak off to Costa Rica?
One fact that the docuseries and Baskin agree on was Lewis' frequent trips to Costa Rica for sexual dalliances. In addition to it being a prospective destination for their big cat breeding center, the docuseries claimed he had a mistress there and Baskin wrote that her sex-obsessed husband would travel there when she was menstruating. Additionally, Baskin said that the couple's former Costa Rican attorney told her that Lewis was loaning money to the "Helicopter Brothers," a local organized crime gang.
Baskin wrote that a caretaker for one of several properties Lewis owned in Costa Rica claimed Lewis had been seen down there after he vanished.
“There was rumors that this was an ‘insurance scam type of thing,’" Thomas, from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, told Oxygen.com.
Thomas said because Lewis was “supposedly sighted" in Costa Rica a couple of years after the disappearance, detectives were sent down there for a couple of weeks to follow up leads, but found nothing.
Was he thrown off a plane?
Joseph Fritz, Lewis’ former attorney, told “Tiger King” producers he believes that Lewis possibly went to go check out a plane (Lewis at one time had a pilot's license) that was for sale that morning. Then, he said he heard a rumor that Lewis was pushed out of a plane 50 feet over the Gulf of Mexico.
"The part about throwing Don out of the plane seems absurd, as that seems like a risk no one would want to take to their own life," Baskin wrote in her blog post.
However, she said it does make sense to her that Lewis might have met up with someone to look at a new plane that morning. She said that if he did buy a new plane, and if he flew the seller back to their home, and then crashed over the Gulf, that would explain his disappearance. She theorized that if he was "under the radar, as he was prone to do, and crashed, we’d likely never find the wreckage."
Was he fed to tigers?
It's the most infamous rumor of all, furthered by the music video Exotic made.
Thomas, from the sheriff's department, acknowledged hearing rumors that Baskin "fed him to the cats because there's no evidence of him anywhere."
The alleged motive would have been to gain sole control over their animal sanctuary, which Baskin did do. She stopped breeding cubs, which Lewis wanted to continue doing, the same year he vanished and the operation soon turned into Big Cat Rescue, a sanctuary to rescue cats from cub-breeding facilities.
Baskin has consistently denied both this rumor and one that she hid his body in a septic tank.
Authorities have said there's no evidence of Baskin killing Lewis, let alone feeding him to tigers.
Was he put through a meat grinder?
The docuseries also mentions rumors that Baskin put her husband through a meat grinder before feeding him to tigers. The filmmakers included footage of a large meat grinder pulverizing meat as this theory was discussed.
Baskin acknowledged having a meat grinder as a kitchen utensil, but said hers was far smaller than the one shown in the docuseries. She also noted in the docuseries that she wouldn't have been able to run a person's hand through the grinder she had, let alone an entire body.
"Meat had to first be cut into one inch cubes [...] to go through it," she wrote in her blog. "The idea that a human body and skeleton could be put through it is idiotic. But the Netflix directors did not care."
She called this theory the "most ludicrous of all the lies."
What is the official status of the case?
Rumors aside, Thomas said the case is not considered a murder.
"As far as our case goes, he’s still a missing person," he told Oxygen.com. "It’s not a homicide because he’s missing. We have no knowledge of where he’s at or a body or anything."
He said of Baskin that “nothing could link her to being involved.”
Baskin has always claimed her innocence.
"Don was not easy to live with and like most couples we had our moments," she wrote on her blog. "But I never threatened him and I certainly had nothing to do with his disappearance."
Editor's note: In his initial interview with Oxygen.com, Greg Thomas of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department stated that Carole Baskin was looked at as a person of interest in her husband Don Lewis' disappearance. Amanda Granit, public relations coordinator for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, has since clarified that Baskin was never officially named a person of interest, nor has anyone else. The case is still classified as a missing persons case.
Get all your true crime news from Oxygen. Coverage of the latest true crime stories and famous cases explained, as well as the best TV shows, movies and podcasts in the genre. And don't miss our own podcast, Martinis & Murder!