Florida sheriff seeking tips in ‘Tiger King’ mystery

Published 6:50 am Wednesday, April 1, 2020

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TAMPA, Fla.  — It might be the biggest diversion from the pandemic: binge-watching the luridly fascinating Netflix documentary “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.”

Now a Florida sheriff is asking the public for tips regarding one of the lingering mysteries raised in the recently released show: What happened to Carole Baskin’s husband?

For those who aren’t up to speed, here’s a primer: Carole Baskin is the owner of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida. Tiger King, the documentary, is about Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as “Joe Exotic,” a former Oklahoma zookeeper who loves guns, younger men, and big cats.

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Earlier this year, he was sentenced to 22 years in prison for his role in a murder-for-hire plot. He was convicted of trying to hire someone to kill Baskin, who had tried to shut him down, accusing the Oklahoma zoo of abusing animals and selling big cat cubs.

In retaliation, Maldonado-Passage raised questions about Baskin’s former husband, Jack “Don” Lewis, who disappeared in 1997. His often violent and expletive-filled rants about Baskin were not only broadcast on his web TV show, but also in the documentary. Since the show was released, speculation about Baskin and Lewis has run rampant — and Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister wants to take advantage of all the attention.

“Everyone’s home. They’re watching Netflix and they’re home,” Chronister said in a news conference Tuesday, adding that Lewis’ case remains open and that he’s recently assigned a detective supervisor to handle new leads.

The documentary extensively covered Maldonado-Passage’s repeated accusations that Baskin killed her husband and possibly fed him to her tigers. Baskin has never been charged with any crime and released a statement  refuting the accusations made in the series.

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

Chronister said at least six new leads a day about Lewis have come in over the past week.

“Nothing credible,” he said. “Most tips are more theories.”

The sheriff debunked a few allegations raised by Maldonado-Passage in the documentary, including that Lewis is buried under the Big Cat Rescue septic tank (that wasn’t put in until years after Lewis’ disappearance) and that Lewis’ body was put through the meat grinders used to process food for the tigers (those were removed several weeks before his disappearance, Chronister said).

The documentary filmmakers “certainly spun it for entertainment purposes,” Chronister said, adding that he too binge-watched the series. “I think that’s why all of us were so intrigued and engaged.”

Maldonado-Passage isn’t giving up, either: From behind bars, he filed a federal lawsuit  seeking nearly $94 million in damages, claiming among other things that he was convicted based on false and perjured testimony. He also says he was singled out for prosecution because he “is an openly gay male with the largest collection of generic tigers and cross breeds.”