Carole Baskin Almost Certainly Killed Her Husband
The operator of a tiger sanctuary in Florida clearly killed her second husband, Jack "Don" Lewis, 23 years ago. The publicly-available evidence all points to this.
Jack "Don" Lewis was worth millions. The self-made man was a titan of industry. His money alone could have provided an incentive for foul play.
Lewis was a self-made millionaire. Before meeting Carole Baskin, he amassed a fortune through trucking, real estate, and used cars. “He had the Midas touch,” one of his daughters told People magazine. According to an article shortly after his death, Don may have been worth $5 million. The Tampa Bay Times reported that his estate was worth as much as $6 million, and that he was generating more than $50,000 per month in revenue. His life insurance police alone was reportedly worth $1.25 million. Debates over a second will detailing his exact fortune, or a forged will, continue to rage among devotees of the show "Tiger King."
Beyond his money, Don did things to aggravate Carole. From extramarital affairs to business disagreements, the couple's marriage was not going smoothly.
Don's extramarital affairs were well-known and well-documented—Carole herself admitted to knowing about them. He likely cheated on Baskin with multiple women.
In the Netflix special, "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness," Episode three at the 13:43 mark, Gladys Lewis Cross, Don's first wife, said he had a girlfriend in Costa Rica. She goes on to say that if Carole thought she was "all he needed" that that "was never going to happen." In that same episode, Dale Lively, Don's mechanic, said, "He liked ladies, I'm sure. I would see him with two or three different ones, you know?" Baskin was well-aware of these dalliances. She wrote that Lewis would travel frequently to Costa Rica for sex, especially when she was menstruating. His philandering was so well-known that even Don's own daughter referred to him as a "sexaholic."
In their business partnership, he wanted to move Big Cat Rescue to Costa Rica. Baskin did not want to let this happen.
A jaguar pictured in the jungle of Costa Rica
In the Netflix special, "Tiger King," John Marsicano, the lead homicide detective gives a clue as to the disappearance of Don Lewis. "The long-term plan, according to the investigation, was that he would eventually move the Big Cat Rescue—or Wildlife on Easy Street as it was known then—down to the Costa Rica area," Marsicano told the filmmakers. Don was obsessed with Costa Rica. He would spend as much time as possible down there. He went not only to have sex with his many mistresses but to search out business opportunities. The wildlife park in Florida was only 69 acres—but in Costa Rica, Don had purchased 200 acres of land to build a new park. Carole seemed happy with her life in Florida and showed no interest in relocating to Costa Rica. But as Don was the main source of the sanctuary's funds, she may have had no choice had he decided to move.
Don and Carole fundamentally disagreed about breeding tigers. He saw Big Cat Rescue as a money-making endeavor, while Carole increasingly saw it as a conservation effort.
When Don and Carole first fell in love, they were both animal-lovers. They happily acquired exotic animals and bred tiger cubs. But their paths started to diverge after several years. Don became more interested in the money-making aspect. And Carole would later become a conservationist, speaking out harshly against those who bought, bred, or sold exotic animals. In the Netflix special, "Tiger King," Lynda Sanchez, Don's daughter from his first wife, confirmed this. "Carole wanted the animals just to collect and love and he looked at it more as a business," she said. Carole herself admitted that their attitudes were changing. Where once they were on the same page, that was no longer the case in the years leading up to his disappearance. "Don and I had differing feelings about conservation and breeding," she said in the documentary. "He loved cubs, he loved breeding cats. He would go down to Costa Rica about once a month and every time he was in Costa Rica, I'd have the vet out here and I would neuter and spay as many cats as fast as I could." Since Don's death, Carole has become well-known in the conservation world as an animal rights activist. Her feud with Joe Exotic first began over Joe's treatment of tiger cubs.
Lewis may have even been planning to divorce her. Between personal disagreements and fights over their business, their relationship was not in a happy place.
By the time Don disappeared, his marriage to Carole had reached a breaking point. There was even talk of divorce. In episode three of "Tiger King," one of his daughters corroborated this fact. Lynda Sanchez, Don's daughter from his first wife, said "At the end I know that there was talk of divorce." His business associate, Wendell Williams, also confirmed that divorce was on the table. "I think he was preparing his estate and assets in a way that he could get a divorce without losing everything," he said in the documentary. Other people who worked for Don—and even Carole herself—affirmed both that he was thinking about divorce and that the divorce would not have ended in Carole's favor. Carole even wrote about their talks of divorce in her journal, saying she "wished there was some way out."
Had he divorced her, she would have been left with little money. She may have even lost her beloved animals.
Don met Carole when she was just 19 years old. He was already a millionaire at that point, and any wealth she later accrued, they made together. Multiple sources—including Carole—suspected that Don would have taken the lion-share of their wealth. Some say he was already organizing his business affairs to make sure that would be the case. “The way Don would have worked, she would have been left with really nothing,” Kenny Farr, Don’s handyman, said. “She would’ve lost the cats. She would’ve lost everything down to the house and the car.” In her diary, Carole wrote that Don had said as much. She writes that Don told her that everything he brought into the marriage, he would take with him out of it. Running a rescue of that size requires a lot of money. From feeding animals and hiring staff to paying property taxes on a huge reserve, it was not a cheap undertaking. Without Don's money, Carole may not have been able to continue with the work that she so loved.
Carole had access to tigers—one of only a few animals that can digest human flesh leaving no trace evidence. She could have potentially disposed of Don Lewis's body by feeding him to the animals.
The sanctuary that Carole Baskin runs (and used to co-run with her husband, Don) houses lions, tigers, and numerous other carnivorous animals. Don's daughters from his first marriage suspect that the tigers were involved in their father's death in some way. They think Carole may even have fed his body to the animals. “It’s a perfect scenario to dispose of someone,” his daughter Donna told People magazine in 1998. “We were upset that the cops didn’t test the DNA on the meat grinder," she added. Carole denies this possibility entirely. In that same People Magazine article, she said: "My tigers eat meat; they don’t eat people...There would be bones and remains of my husband out there. I’m amazed that people would even think such a thing." In an article published in Big Cat Rescue after "Tiger King" debuted, Baskin fervently denied this claim again. She dismissed it as media bait. "This is the most ludicrous of all the lies," she wrote. "As Gladys and the daughters did everything they could to make life difficult for me after Don disappeared, they spread this rumor that they thought I had ground Don up and fed him to the cats. And the media loved it." Tigers generally don't show a preference for human flesh. Out of desperation or accessibility, however, they will eat it.
There's evidence that Don feared for his life. And that terror only seemed to mount in the months leading up to his disappearance.
Don Lewis pictured before his disappearance
Just weeks before he disappeared, he filed a request for a restraining order against Carole. That request was denied.
On June 12, 1997, Don Lewis filed a restraining order against Carole Baskin. Lewis claimed that Baskin had threatened to kill him. He also said that she had hidden his gun. Baskin dismissed the idea that her husband actually believed he was in danger. She claims he just feared she would haul away some of his junk when he was in Costa Rica. "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?" The law agreed: Don's restraining order request was denied. In general, in order to receive a restraining order, the person requesting it has to prove a credible threat. Otherwise, threats like this fall under freedom of expression. As Don's lawyer Joseph Fritz said in the documentary, that restraining order was “dead on arrival” because of the first amendment. “We don’t restrain free speech in this country—we punish it after it’s done," he said.
His family said he felt he was in danger from Carole. His friends said the same thing—everyone closest to Don said he was terrified that Carole Baskin would do something to him.
Don Lewis's family has since filed a lawsuit against Carole Baskin. Baskin responds here.
In the Netflix special, "Tiger King," members of his family read from the restraining order filed by Don Lewis. They affirmed their father's terror. One of the excerpts reads: "She ordered me out of the house or she would kill me." She allegedly had a gun and hid Don's gun from him. Furthermore, his daughter said that her father generally avoided going to law enforcement for any reason. So "for him to go down there and write that out and present it before a judge was major, in my eyes," she said. Another friend also said the same thing. Mark McCarthy told the documentary filmmakers that Don told him a month before he disappeared that he felt his life was in danger. Some of the people closest to Don therefore knew about his terror. And that fear centered around Carole.
The disappearance itself was extremely strange. From Carole Baskin's behavior following the incident to the clues left behind—something just doesn't add up.
Carole just refers to the incident as his "disappearance" and acts as if she doesn't know anything else. She remains so vague as to be suspicious, and she was pretty quick to move on.
In the opening paragraphs of an article Baskin uploaded to the Big Cat Rescue website, she refers to it as simply "...the disappearance of my husband Don in 1997." For someone who claims to have been in love with Don, Carole seemed quick to move on. Her main priority rapidly became ensuring that Don was declared legally dead so that she could collect his fortune. Later, she has a section in a blog post that she titles "The Time Leading up to Don's Disappearance" and in that discussion, she doesn't provide any information about how he disappeared, suggesting she has no idea. For example, in the second paragraph about a doctor ordering an MRI for him, she just writes, "I did not find the prescription until I was searching his bedside table looking for clues to his disappearance." And in the paragraph after that about a doctor's appointment she had scheduled for him, she writes, "But he disappeared before the appointment date."
The physical evidence in Don's disappearance doesn't make a lot of sense. For instance, his van was left at a private airport with the keys left in it. It was a scene that appeared staged to many observers.
Some of the only hard evidence was Don's abandoned white van, found with the keys still in it. The van was found parked outside a private airport. According to reports, this piece of evidence "followed Baskin’s story that he had told her he was heading to Costa Rica, and that was the last time she spoke to him." As Baskin told a local news crew at the time of his disappearance: “He said to be sure and get the Costa Rica truck ready, cause he was leaving early, early, early in the morning for Miami.” And yet, much about the scene seemed staged. If he really had flown to Costa Rica, why would he have left the keys in the parked van? John Marsciano, one of the lead detectives on the case, told the "Tiger King" documentary crew that he doesn't believe that Don left the van and flew to Costa Rica. “There’s nothing at all to indicate that Don left his van there and got in a plane, and crashed it somewhere," he said.
Lewis was never seen again since 1997. He disappeared almost without a single trace—neither police nor locals have had any sightings of him since that day more than 20 years ago.
His body has never been recovered. No remains at all have been found, not even partial remains as would have been the case if he had indeed crashed his airplane.
Ever since Don Lewis disappeared August 18, 1997, no body has been found. The police have not even been able to find partial remains. Even though the Hillsborough County Sheriff's office followed leads for years, no body was recovered and the case remains unsolved to this day. The case is still open until they can find some proof of what actually happened to him. Some speculate that if Carole Baskin killed him, she would have disposed of his body using the tigers. Others say that she might have buried him under a septic tank. Law enforcement first treated the case as a run-of-the-mill missing persons case. But within a few weeks, they suspected foul play, according to one of the lead detectives. The lack of remains or physical evidence make it very difficult to determine what actually happened to him.
After the mandated waiting period, Don was legally declared dead in 2002. There was never even a funeral for him.
August 19, 2002—exactly five years and a day after his disappearance—Carole Baskin had Don declared legally dead. After this, she was able to finally access his life insurance policy and his other assets. Because of Carole's quick and determined nature on the death certificate, she was able to access his funds more easily. Between when he first disappeared and when he was legally declared dead, Carole moved property and assets around in that time so that she could take the bulk of his estate, his kids and ex-wife claim. All of this was made possible through another type of sly maneuvering on Carole's part: she gave herself power of attorney over Don's estate after he had already gone missing. Following his disappearance, Carole cut the lock to his office and took papers. Don's secretary claims that there were two wills and two power of attorneys—those both disappeared. The secretary says she was executor and power of attorney for both of them. Instead, Carole produced a document granting her power of attorney. The strangest thing about the document? It includes the language of not only "in the event of my death" but "upon my disappearance." That choice of language is bizarre because while everyone anticipates dying at some point, few people expect to disappear. "In 30 years, I've never seen that,” Don's attorney said in the documentary. Carole never organized a funeral or memorial service for Don. There is not even a tombstone to mark his likely death.
Carole's own justifications for Don's disappearance don't make sense. And they only cast more suspicion on her.
Michael Noonan/Wikimedia Commons
She claims Don had dementia and may have wandered off. But none of his friends or family members noticed any kind of memory loss whatsoever.
Carole Baskin claims that Don had developed memory problems and potentially dementia or Alzheimer’s. She thinks that this may have caused his disappearance. At one point, Carole blamed his flying hobby, saying that multiple plane crashes may have contributed to his memory issues. “I don’t think he was ever completely right after that last crash,” Baskin said. She claims that his memory problems got worse over time. Baskin claims that at one point a volunteer came to her suspecting that he may have Alzheimer’s. After he disappeared, Carole appeared on local TV, crying. “Maybe he doesn’t know where he is. Maybe he doesn’t know who to call,” she said. She spoke again about this in a post to Big Cat Rescue's Website. In it, she claims that his mental state had so deteriorated that he was dumpster diving. She claims he actually filed the restraining order to prevent her from hauling away his junk. Carole also said that he had such advanced mental problems that he was defecating outside. Close friends and family said that they saw no signs of memory loss whatsoever. His business associate, Wendell Williams summed it up succinctly, saying: “That’s all bull.” Don’s lawyer corroborated this. “He knew exactly what was going on,” he said of Don in the documentary.
Carole's behavior the night Don disappeared and in the months following was suspicious. And her police officer brother might have been involved.
E News catches up with Carole Baskin after the series Tiger King—and more than 20 years after her husband's disappearance.
A few hours before Don disappeared, Carole went to pick up milk byproduct for the tigers—at 3 in the morning. She claims that her car broke down. She just so happened to run into her brother—a member of law enforcement—who gave her a ride. She says a few hours later is when she saw Don for the last time. But no one can corroborate her story. No one even knows for sure that he was alive at that point. Carole’s brother was a member of the sheriff’s department. Some suspect that he may have guided the investigation away from Carole. Not only was Carole's behavior that night suspicious, what she did after that was also strange. She soon went to his office to take files, but she did not call the police immediately to report him missing. It took several days for her to decide to make the call, and she called only after Don's secretary urged her to do so.
When you put the facts together, it adds up: Carole murdered her husband. Despite Carole's many excuses, it's the most sensible explanation.