In between dating shows, cooking shows, and movies, Tiger King: Murder, Madness and Mayhem certainly stands out in Netflix's large catalogue of original content. The crime docuseries follows the story of Joseph Maldonado-Passage, known as Joe Exotic, a big-cat breeder. Although most of the series is focussed on his career with lions, tigers, and bears, and the murder-for-hire scheme that put him behind bars, there's a large piece of the story that could have been a docuseries all its own.
Joe Exotic didn't hide his negative feelings towards Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, FL. Besides beings rivals in the big-cat game, he believed that Baskin killed her husband Jack Donald Lewis, who went by Don Lewis. She has maintained her innocence for over 20 years, and with no evidence linking her to the suspected murder, the cold case remains open.
Carole Baskin's Relationship With Don Lewis
As per the documentary, Baskin grew up poor, mostly living in mobile homes. She married an abusive man who fathered her daughter, Jamie Murdock. Baskin met Lewis, a multi-millionaire, in 1981 when she was 20 years old and he was 42 years old. Both Baskin and Lewis were married to other people at the time, and he had children as well. They met when Lewis was driving down the street and he saw Baskin crying on the side of the road after she had a fight with her husband. After some convincing, she got in his car, because he needed someone to talk to. They spent the night together.
When Baskin was 24 years old, she left her husband to be with Lewis. The two first stepped into the big-cat world in 1992 when they purchased a bobcat. From there, their animal count grew with more bobcats and lynxes, and they opened the sanctuary Wildlife on Easy Street, which would eventually become Big Cat Rescue. The couple began disagreeing and arguing about the direction of their business – Baskin wanted to collect and love the animals, while Lewis saw it more as a breeding and monetary opportunity.
There was talk of Lewis having a roaming eye, and not being able to settle down with just one woman. There were rumours that he had a mistress in Costa Rica. Baskin wasn't seen in a great light either, because many believed she was hungry for his money. Towards the end, there was also talk of divorce, and it was suspected that he was preparing his assets so he wouldn't lose everything when they separated.
In Tiger King, we learn that Lewis gave his executive assistant Anne McQueen an envelope with paperwork in it, saying to give it to the police if anything happened to him. It enclosed a copy of the restraining order Lewis filed against Baskin for threatening to kill him for the second time. The June 1997 restraining order noted that Baskin had a gun of her own and had hid his gun. He wasn't granted protection, because the threats were covered under the first amendment. Baskin said she never threatened him.
Lewis was last seen on Aug. 18, 1997. According to Baskin, the last thing he said to her was that he was leaving "early, early, early" the next day to transport cars to Costa Rica. He was reported missing on Aug. 19, 1997, and three or four days later his abandoned van was found at the airport with the keys and his briefcase inside. Not exactly the trail you want to leave behind if you're purposely trying to disappear, right?
However, Baskin has suspicions of her own – one being which that Lewis may have staged his own disappearance, according to a 1998 article in People.
There isn't any evidence that Lewis flew to Costa Rica. Baskin had talked to the press about a bad crash he previously had that caused him to never be the same and have memory issues. But other people close to Lewis said that was not true. It's very clear that some thought she was setting the stage for him to have dementia, so it could be believed that he just disappeared.
After the Netflix docuseries came out, Baskin took to Big Cat Rescue to refute things in Tiger King. She explained that someone mentioned Alzheimer's to her, and it wasn't a commonly used word at the time. She brought Lewis to see her psychiatrist, who referred them to another doctor in the same building. That physician diagnosed Lewis with bipolar disorder and gave him a prescription. Baskin said his behaviour got more strange, and he disappeared before they could go to a specialist appointment.
The Meat Grinder Theory
There are various theories going around about Baskin's involvement in her husband's disappearance. One is that there was a septic tank under a building at the sanctuary, and he was placed in that. Another is that she killed her husband, grinded his body parts up in a meat grinder on-site, and fed it to the big cats.
"It's a perfect scenario to dispose of someone," Donna Pettis, Lewis oldest of four children, told People. "We were upset that the cops didn't test the DNA on the meat grinder."
Baskin told People that her tigers eat meat, not people.
Joe Exotic, who strongly believes that Baskin had a hand in her husband's disappearance, is also an aspiring country music star who has made over a dozen music videos. He performed a song called "Here Kitty Kitty" about Baskin allegedly killing her husband and feeding him to big cats. A Baskin lookalike is seen in the music videos feeding Lewis' body parts.
It's worth noting that Baskin's brother was a member of the sheriff's office. Baskin said that she "never really knew" her brother due to their six-year age gap. However, the day that Lewis went missing, Baskin left Wildlife on Easy Street to pick up milk for the cats at 3 a.m. Her car broke down and she ran into her brother and another deputy. That deputy gave Baskin a ride back to her home. The last time she said she saw her husband was a few hours after that.
In a 2005 article in Tampa Bay Times, Lynda Sanchez, Lewis' daughter, said that her father never went 24 hours without calling, even when he was on business trips.
"Every one of us . . . have volunteered to take a lie detector test," Sanchez said. "Carole in the only one that will not take one."
Now it's time to talk money, because we know that Lewis had a lot of it and it could easily be a motive in his disappearance. There were two wills and two power of attorneys. McQueen, Lewis' executive assistant, was the executor for both of the wills and power of attorneys for Lewis and Baskin. However, on the new documents that Baskin produced, the power of attorney changed over to her, so she had the power of estate.
What made people raise their eyebrows was a sentence at the top of Lewis' document: "This durable family power of attorney shall not be affected by any disability or disappearance."
Lewis's attorney said that in his 37 years of practice, he had never seen the power of attorney document specify "or disappearance," making this choice of words "terribly unusual."
Since Lewis had disappeared, and not technically died, he couldn't be declared legally deceased until five years after his disappearance. Baskin had him declared legally dead five years and one day after he disappeared. The story accompanying the money and assets gets messy, because there are two sides to it: the one Lewis' ex-wife and children are telling, and the one Baskin is telling.
According to his ex-wife and kids, Baskin took assets out of their names and putting them into her name. Baskin said that Lewis disowned his kids after they tried to take him back to court, because they didn't think their mother got a fair settlement in the divorce. Baskin said that Lewis asked to nullify their trusts, but Baskin decided not to because she thought he would feel differently someday.
Just to make things clear, there isn't any evidence that points to Baskin having any involvement in the disappearance of Don Lewis; the case is still open. All we're saying is that we didn't think the big cat saga could get this wild.