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"Meat grinder" theory investigated in case of missing millionaire Don Lewis

The Missing Millionaire: A "Tiger King" Mystery
The Missing Millionaire: A "Tiger King" Mystery 42:36

[This story previously aired on January 1. It was updated on July 30.]

There are possible new leads in the strange case of missing millionaire Don Lewis — a man who seemed to vanish without a trace.

 Richard Schlesinger: You believe he was killed, correct?

Alex Spiro: Uh, yes.

Alex Spiro, an attorney and former prosecutor, is working for Lewis' daughters to help investigate what happened to their father.

Alex Spiro: There's witnesses and information that shed light on further facts and circumstances surrounding this.

Richard Schlesinger: Have you met these witnesses?

Alex Spiro: Yes.

Richard Schlesinger: And you believe them?

Alex Spiro: Yes.

DONNA PETTIS [ Don Lewis' daughter [to reporters]: We had lost all hope of ever knowing what happened to dad.

And then they got some hope from a TV series -- the Netflix documentary "Tiger King," about an Oklahoma-based, eccentric big-cat owner named Joe Exotic and his epic battle with Tampa-based animal rights activist Carole Baskin.

"Joe Exotic is this wild, cartoonish — flamboyant, openly-gay, mulleted, tattooed, gun-toting, large-animal owner," says Vanity Fair writer Julie Miller." Kinda the Mick Jagger, I'd say, of the large-cat animal world ... Carole's more a hippie, new-age vibe, wears flower crowns." AP Photo/Alamy

Julie Miller | Senior feature writer, Vanity Fair: Joe Exotic is this wild, cartoonish— flamboyant, openly-gay, mulleted, tattooed, gun-toting, large-animal owner…. Kinda the Mick Jagger, I'd say, of the large-cat animal world. Carole has fashioned herself as more of an animal activist. … She says that what Joe is doing is not humane and should be stopped.

Woven into this entertainment, explains Miller, is a cold case.

Julie Miller: Carole's second husband, Don Lewis, disappeared under very mysterious circumstances. It was in 1997 and he just vanished. There have been all sorts of theories.

Gale Rathbone | Don Lewis' daughter: There's one that he was drugged and put in one of the small planes and dumped out in the gulf.

Julie Miller: The most insane theory, probably being that … Carole Baskin … had her husband ground up in a meat grinder and fed them to the animals.

JOE EXOTIC [Joe Exotic TV YouTube page]: Word has it that Carole snuck up on him in the middle of the night, beat him in the head … ground him up and fed him to the tigers.

As bizarre as that sounds, one woman believes her ex-husband, who once worked for Don and Carole, may have revealed something about Don's fate during a fight.  

Trish Farr-Payne: He said, "If you try to leave me again, I will put you in the grinder, like I did Don."

Her ex-husband denies her story.

Richard Schlesinger: Do you believe her husband told her that "he'd put her in a meat grinder the way he did to Don?

Alex Spiro: I will tell you that there is certain information she's provided that has been independently corroborated," he replied.

Richard Schlesinger who would you like to interview most?

Corporal Moise Garcia: Carole Baskin

CAROLE BASKIN [June 1, 2002 video]: I didn't kill Don.

Julie Miller: People want answers. …They want to know what happened to Don Lewis.


Like it or not, the Tiger King, Joe Exotic, is back — along with his arch enemy Carole Baskin.

Lots has happened to these two since we last heard from them.  Netflix came out with a second season of its "Tiger King" series and Carole Baskin vented on a celebrity webcast called "Hollywood Raw."

CAROLE BASKIN "[Hollywood Raw"]: I really feel like this is going to be just another horrible year of people having the wrong idea of who I am and what I'm trying to do.

Carole Baskin began getting all that attention when she was trying to shut down Joe Exotic's private zoo in Oklahoma.

JOE EXOTIC [Joe Exotic TV YouTube page]: She has spent over a million-and-a-half dollars just trying to shut me down.

Joe Exotic fought back. His weapon was a music video with a sensational message featuring his idea of a Carole Baskin look-alike. His video charged that Baskin murdered her husband Don Lewis and fed him to their tigers.

Carole Baskin has denied the allegation vigorously and repeatedly.

But millions of viewers saw the video and suddenly the heat was turned up on a cold case: what happened to Carole's husband, Don Lewis? The show even lit a fire under the local sheriff's office.

Cpl. Moise Garcia | Hillsborough County, Fla: We re-interviewed everybody and have looked at new evidence and continue to investigate.

Investigators say only two people have declined to be interviewed by law enforcement, one of them is Carole Baskin.

Cpl. Moise Garcia: Carole is considered a suspect and a person of interest.

It was 40 years ago that Carole first became a person of interest to Don Lewis.

 Like so many Florida stories, their story begins like a pulp fiction novel any reputable publisher would reject.  It starts on an unusually chilly night in 1981 in Tampa. Carole was still a teenager, and in a bad marriage. She found herself wandering in tears down a main street in the middle of the night, and just then, 42-year-old Don drove by in his truck. He had stepped out of the home he shared with his wife Gladys.

Don Lewis
Don Lewis Donna Pettis

Gladys Lewis Cross: We had had an argument. And — he left home, and — was headed to another girlfriend's house for the night, which I found out later. But he was goin' down … the … avenue, and here was a pretty blonde, and she was cryin'. And he told me that he stopped and — she got in the truck with him, and they spent the night together. 

Richard Schlesinger: I'm sorry, so he was on his way to another girlfriend's house when — 

Gladys Lewis Cross: Yes. 

Richard Schlesinger: — he met — 

Gladys Lewis Cross: Uh-huh [affirms].

Richard Schlesinger: — Carole and took her — 

Gladys Lewis Cross: Yes. 

Richard Schlesinger: — to a — 

Gladys Lewis Cross: Yes. 

Richard Schlesinger: — hotel or a motel and — 

Gladys Lewis Cross: Yes. 

Richard Schlesinger: Wow. He was busy. 

Gladys Lewis Cross: Yes, he was. 

Don Lewis was busy with two main interests: money and women. Long before he picked up Carole that night on the street, he met Gladys. She was just 13 when he noticed her shopping with her mother.

Gladys Lewis Cross: And I looked up, and I thought, "Woo, he sure is good looking." And then he winked at me … And I turned around to see who he might be lookin' at, and there was no one there. So, I said, "I guess that was me." 

A little more than a year later, Gladys and Don married. He was 17, with very little money, but very big plans. 

Gladys Lewis Cross: He could tear anything apart, put it back together.

Don worked hard, fixing broken machinery. He made enough money to buy and grow a trucking business. Then he started buying and selling Florida real estate. And along the way, he met Anne McQueen.   

Anne McQueen: Don took somebody …with an eighth-grade education and taught them how to manage a multimillion-dollar business.

McQueen kept the books and helped run things. They were quite a team. Eventually, Lewis was worth — according to his lawyer — between $5 and $10 million. But you'd never know it. He did business out of a used trailer on an empty lot, he dressed in old jeans and cheap T-shirts, and his cash management system was quaint.   

Richard Schlesinger: What about burying money on the property? Did he do that? 

Gladys Lewis Cross: Yes, he did. 

Richard Schlesinger: That's kind of an interesting thing to do. 

Gladys Lewis Cross: Well, somebody would pay him cash, and he'd love having cash around, so we'd put it in a jar and just dig a hole under the little red barn we had.

Richard Schlesinger: I mean, where I'm from, people who want cash frequently go to the ATM. They don't go to a little red barn. Why do you suppose he didn't like to go to the bank? 

Gladys Lewis Cross: Well, he had plenty of money in the bank too, so … 

Don and Gladys raised a family. Their three daughters, Lynda, Donna, and Gale remember their childhoods as happy.  

Don Lewis was married to Gladys Lewis when he first met Carole in 1981. Gladys and Don raised a family [pictured]. Their daughters say they had a happy childhood and that their father had a passion for animals. Donna Pettis

Donna Pettis: He was home every night. We always had dinner. 

It was also a bit unusual; largely because Don had a thing for animals— mostly wild ones. 

Gale Rathbone: I wouldn't call it passionate. I would call it an obsession.  … We would come home from school, and there'd be a baby alligator swimming in the bathtub. There were — ferrets and raccoons and horses and cows and — 

Donna Pettis: And a penguin and a monkey. 

Gale Rathbone: Dad really loved animals. 

But his daughters never knew about that other love of Don's:  women — and not just their mother Gladys.

Richard Schlesinger:  Was he a good husband?

Gladys Lewis Cross: He was until I would get a call and say he's seein' someone. 

Richard Schlesinger: Ooh. Well, that's — pardon me, that doesn't sound like a good husband. 

Gladys Lewis Cross: He was. 

Richard Schlesinger: Up until that point?

Gladys Lewis Cross: Yes 

Richard Schlesinger: May I be a little impolite and ask you if you know roughly how many women he was seeing besides you? 

Gladys Lewis Cross: If you're talkin' about the whole 34 years I was married to him — possibly 25. 

Richard Schlesinger: Forgive me again for asking, but how did that make you feel? 

Gladys Lewis Cross: Well, when I would find out, I would tell him I was leaving, and he would say, "There'll be no more." 

Richard Schlesinger: Did you believe him? 

Gladys Lewis Cross: Of course, at that time. And as years went by, no. … You have to make up your mind — to live in that situation or let it drive you crazy.  

Gladys was pretty good about living with a serial philanderer. And then Don Lewis met Carole.  

Richard Schlesinger: Was there any sense when he met her that she was different than the other 24 or some odd women? 

Gladys Lewis Cross: No. She was— she was just like the other 25. But — I would say more greedy, because she did find out that he had money 

Richard Schlesinger: What do you think of her? 

Gladys Lewis Cross: You really want me to answer that? 

Richard Schlesinger:  I'd like to. 

Gladys Lewis Cross: I think she's the worst thing that ever was born in the United States of America. 

Richard Schlesinger: Wow. You don't mince words. 

Gladys Lewis Cross: No. And there's more if you want them. 

Carole Baskin and Don Lewis
Carole Baskin and Don Lewis Tampa Bay Times/ZUMA Press

Don and Carole had been seeing each other for about 10 years when Gladys decided she'd had enough. She and Don finally divorced in 1990. A year later, Don married Carole and before long, the new Mr. and Mrs. Lewis had a new business. They bought a bunch of big cats and put them on exhibit at a place called Wildlife on Easy Street. 

Don's former lawyer, Joseph Fritz.

Joseph Fritz: He'd take a chair and sit in the yard with … 10, 12 bobcats, and all over him, and him playin' with him like it was a household puppy. 

But before long, there was difficulty on Easy Street. Don and Carole weren't getting along.

Gladys Lewis Cross: He told me then, he said, "I want you to know right now, don't you or the girls or any of the grandkids or anybody be left in the room with her alone." 

And then, after only 6 years of marriage, Don Lewis just vanished. 

CAROLE BASKIN [WTSP news report]: He wouldn't walk away and leave his cats. He wouldn't walk away and leave his business. I find it hard to believe he'd walk away and leave me.  


In the days before he went missing, Don Lewis was planning to go to Costa Rica to sell some used cars and trucks.

Anne McQueen: He was supposed to go and get me some VIN numbers and supposed to call me back, and he didn't.

Richard Schlesinger: Was that like him? I mean, did he do that frequently? 

Anne McQueen: No. Don and I spoke on a daily basis.  

Anne McQueen: I finally — reached Carole… I kinda asked her if she knew where her husband was. And — her answer to me was, no, that she hadn't seen him since — the day before. … And she asked me if I thought that she should call the police. And I think I made a smart-aleck remark and said somethin', like, "You think?  Yeah … you need to do that." 

There were some not-so-subtle signs that there were problems in Don and Carole's marriage. There was that cryptic warning Gladys said she was given not to be alone with Carole. And Don's daughter, Donna, had sensed trouble between the two.  

Donna Pettis: He thought she was crazy. 

Richard Schlesinger: Crazy? 

Donna Pettis: Mm-hmm. He didn't — like the way she spent money.  

The couple also reportedly fought about what to do with the animals. Carole wanted to keep them and make Easy Street a sanctuary. Don, so the story goes, wanted to breed and sell them. He had talked about getting a divorce, and if he had gone through with it, it could have been costly, says Don's lawyer Joe Fritz.

Richard Schlesinger: So, she would've lost a considerable amount of money? 

Joseph Fritz: Millions. 

Richard Schlesinger: That's considerable. 

Joseph Fritz: That's considerable. 

The couple made a lot of money while they were together. But it turned out there were more signs of trouble. After Don disappeared, Anne McQueen says she remembered a sealed envelope that he had given her two months earlier. 

Anne McQueen: He came to the office, and he was agitated, and he gave me an envelope. And he said, "Take this. Keep it in a safe place "… He either said, "Take it to the police, or you'll know what to do with it — if anything ever happens." 

Anne McQueen: I took it home…. I didn't think anything about it.  

But after Don went missing, Anne says she opened the envelope.  

Anne McQueen: He was asking the judge for a restraining order.  

Just months before he disappeared, Don tried unsuccessfully to get a restraining order against Carole, telling the judge: "… Carole has gotten angry enough to threaten to kill me. … She has a .45 revolver and she took my .357." 

Richard Schlesinger: Do you remember how you felt when you read the stuff about how he — she threatened to kill him? 

Anne McQueen: I started shakin'.  

Richard Schlesinger: Did you actually start shaking? 

Anne McQueen: I'm shaking now. 

Anne says she took the document to the sheriff's office and while she was there the burglar alarm went off at Don's office. Carole had set it off. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Carole got in with help from her father and Don's handyman, a man named Kenny Farr, and when Anne got back to the office, she says she was shocked.

Anne McQueen: Everything was gone. Everything that was in my desk was gone.

Including, she says, Don's will and power of attorney. Police said Carole's action was legal. After all, she was Don's wife. But Don's daughters were suspicious. 

Lynda Sanchez: Well, to us it's very odd. She may be a spouse, but she did not have a key at all to the gate or the office. So that says a lot right there.  

But that's not the only odd thing. Carole gave an interview to the television show "Hard Copy," suggesting Don might have had some kind of dementia:

CAROLE BASKIN [in tears on "Hard Copy"]: Maybe he doesn't know who he is. Maybe he doesn't know where to call home. 

But Don's lawyer Joseph Fritz says Don had no memory problems.   

Joe Fritz: Absolutely none.  

Richard Schlesinger: Did you see him shortly before he disappeared?  

Joe Fritz: I saw him at least every week and sometimes two or three times.

Don Lewis ' daughters, from left, Lynda Sanchez, Donna Pettis and Gale Rathbone CBS News

And Don's family doesn't believe Carole was really worried about Don, in part, because they say weeks after he disappeared, she canceled Don's cell phone account.

Gale Rathbone: If a person — at the beginning, your husband, you think he has dementia, he's got Alzheimer's, and now he's missing, do you turn his cell phone off after two or three weeks of him being missing? His only lifeline to reach you? 

Donna Pettis:  She turned it off. Three weeks after … 

Gale Rathbone: Cancelled the account. 

As the weeks turned into months, Carole offered another possibility. Instead of Costa Rica, maybe Don was under arrest in Mexico and couldn't call her.   

CAROLE BASKIN [WTSP news report]: The only place I still haven't looked that I feel somewhat hopeful of being able to find him alive is gonna be Mexico, and I don't know how hard or how long that'll take.

REPORTER: You think maybe a prison? 

CAROLE BASKIN: Yeah. I can't think of anything else that would keep him away this long … I find it hard to believe he'd walk away and leave me.

Don's family began to think the worst — that Don was dead, and that Carole played a role in his death.

Gladys Lewis Cross
Gladys Lewis Cross CBS News

Richard Schlesinger: What was your first thought? 

Gladys Lewis Cross: I would love to tell you, but I better not. 

Richard Schlesinger: Can you give me a hint? 

Gladys Lewis Cross: You've got it. 

Richard Schlesinger: You thought it was her? 

Gladys Lewis Cross: I can't say that. 

Richard Schlesinger: Would I be wrong in assuming that that was your first thought? 

Gladys Lewis Cross: Maybe. 

Richard Schlesinger: Maybe I'd be wrong? 

Gladys Lewis Cross: Maybe you might be right. 

And then, the case took a turn. Police found Don's van abandoned at a remote airport; the keys were reportedly still in it. Remember, Don had been planning to go to Costa Rica for work.

Gale Rathbone: There is the theory that he just got tired of everything and jumped in an airplane and flew to Costa Rica and drove up the mountain and is living happily ever after there.  

Don had owned several planes and he loved to fly. 

Joe Solan has flown hundreds of hours in one type of plane that Don Lewis liked to fly: a Piper Arrow 3.

Joe Solan: You can roughly get about 700 miles to a full tank, the two main tanks full.

Richard Schlesinger: So, if, say you were going to go from the Tampa area down to Costa Rica. It's not a nonstop flight.

Joe Solan: No, no [laughs].

Richard Schlesinger: So that's like how many refueling stops? 

Joe Solan: Oh, probably three to at four least.

If he did refuel, no one seems to know about it. Besides, Don's family says he would never just take off and leave them. But if Don didn't just fly off to begin a new life somewhere, what was his van doing at the airport?  

Joe Fritz: I've heard, at the time … that he was strangled from the backseat of an airplane with an electric cord and pushed out 50 feet over the Gulf. 

Was missing millionaire Don Lewis pushed from a plane? 01:56

Correspondent Richard Schlesinger is also a pilot and flies the same type of plane Don often flew.

Richard Schlesinger [flying plane]: First of all, imagine the struggle involved in strangling a 170-pound man in this passenger seat. Then, if the plan was to push him out the door, that's a challenge. The slowest this airplane can fly is about 65 mph, and that means winds approaching hurricane strength would be pushing against this door trying to keep it closed. You'd have to open it. You'd have to keep it open, and you'd have to somehow wrestle the body out of here without interfering with the flight controls. Bottom line: I guess you could do it, but there are easier ways to get rid of a body.  

And there was no evidence that any of Don's planes were missing. So, if it's unlikely Don Lewis was pushed out of a small airplane. Where was he?


In the summer of 1997, Carole spoke with the local Fox TV station.  

CAROLE BASKIN [Fox interview]: I'm very worried. … It's just a feeling … that he is OK, that he will just walk back in the gate.  

But Don never did.

Alex Spiro: It's very hard in the 21st century to go missing, missing as a middle-aged man who has a very active cellular records, banking records, et cetera.

Alex Spiro is an attorney. A former New York City prosecutor, he's now working for Don Lewis' daughters.

Richard Schlesinger: There're all sorts of— theories about what might have happened — to Don. One of them — was that he was tossed out of an airplane. Do you find that credible?

Alex Spiro: Sometimes in high-profile cases, people come up with fanciful theories of, you know, tigers, lions, bears, and airplanes. I mean, there's usually a simpler explanation of things.

Spiro says the simplest thing of all is to start with the timeline of the day Don Lewis vanished.  

Alex Spiro: There's a critical window here where — Don Lewis went missing. Where the rubber meets the road is what happened during those 24 hours.

So, what happened the during those 24 hours? Carole says she last saw Don Lewis early in the morning of August 18, 1997, when she came home from running a late-night errand. 

Leonora LePeter Anton:  She wouldn't talk to us in person this time. So, she sent us a couple — a diary entries.

Leonora LePeter Anton is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and a CBS News consultant.

Leonora LaPeter Anton: And one of them was … what she did that night … the Sunday, August 17th, 1997.

Carole says that late that Sunday night before Don went missing, she needed milk and supplies for her wild cats.

Leonora LaPeter Anton: … at 11:00, you know, she had these kittens that were in the house. There was a bobcat kitten and two caracal kittens. And — she didn't have enough ingredients for the milk.

In her diaries, Carole says she left Don and drove to a supermarket about six miles away, but the store was closed.

And then, the story takes another twist. She says her car broke down. Carole says she walked all the way home. It took her until nearly 4 a.m.

Leonora LaPeter Anton: And then when she got home, Don wanted to immediately go back and get the car. So, at 4 in the morning, they went back. He put some water — he was— she wasn't able to get the radiator cap off earlier. He got the radiator cap off, put water in it. And then they drove home

Leonora LaPeter Anton:  Two hours later, she saw him in the doorway, and he was leaving. And he — you know, he just — he just left.

Leonora LaPeter Anton: And that's the last time she saw him.

Don's ex-wife has her doubts about that story.

Gladys Lewis Cross: I don't think she was goin' to buy milk, no, OK?

Richard Schlesinger: You do not?

Gladys Lewis Cross: No. She wasn't goin' to go buy milk.

Richard Schlesinger: Do you think that she was up to no good that night?

Gladys Lewis Cross: Could be.

What happened next has raised even more suspicions. After Don disappeared, Carole produced what she said was Don's will and power of attorney leaving her in charge of everything. But Don's family says his signature on those documents is forged. 

Richard Schlesinger: Would I be wrong in assuming that you believe that Carole was involved in making up … the will and the power of attorney? 

Gladys Lewis Cross: You could be.

Richard Schlesinger: I could be wrong? 

Gladys Lewis Cross: You could be right. 

Richard Schlesinger: If she was involved, why would she want to have Don Lewis killed? 

Gladys Lewis Cross: M-O-N-E-Y [spells out word]. 

Richard Schlesinger: Money? 

Gladys Lewis Cross: Of course. That happens all the time, the world we live in today.

Leonora LaPeter Anton had four handwriting experts examine Don's signature on the power of attorney. All said the signature did not look authentic.  

Leonora LaPeter Anton: Two of them said they felt it was traced from the 1991 marriage license between Don and Carole. And that — that basically they were, you know, not accurate Don Lewis signatures. 

But Carole says the signatures were authenticated back in 1997 and are real.

The Tampa Bay Times also looked into Don's former righthand man, Kenny Farr. Remember, he reportedly helped Carole get into Don's office that day.  

Leonora LaPeter Anton: He was basically his — a jack-of-all-trades, his right-hand man. And then … after Don Lewis disappeared, he went and worked with Carole Baskin. 

Trish Farr-Payne: He was driving one of Don's vans. Don's blue van.

Kenny Farr and Trish Farr-Payne
Kenny Farr and Trish Farr-Payne Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office/CBS News

Trish Farr-Payne was married to Kenny for 5 years. In her first ever TV interview, she told "48 Hours" that two days before Don Lewis was reported missing, Farr came home with Don Lewis' van – and inside there was a pile of guns.

Trish Farr-Payne: He said, "Help me carry these in." We carried 'em in, we put 'em under the bed, we put 'em in the closet, we put 'em in the little bathroom we had in our room. I was, like, "Whoa — where did you get these?" He said, "Listen, I — I'm — I'm hangin' on to these right now for Carole." But — he said, "Don's gone. And— I don't want you talkin' about him." 

Richard Schlesinger: Did you ask him what he meant by, "Don's gone"? 

Trish Farr-Payne: No, not right then. Because … he would blow up real easy at me … I just didn't question it. 

Later that week, she heard on the news that Don had gone missing.

Trish Farr-Payne: Everything started kinda coming together. Kenny's got Don's van, Kenny's got Don's guns — Don's gone, and I knew Don was gone the day before he supposedly was missing. It — something wasn't right. 

She says she was too afraid to ask Kenny, but it was hard to ignore some very strange things. Like the large freezer with a padlock that she says appeared on their porch around the time Don disappeared. And then, she says, the freezer vanished.

Richard Schlesinger: How long after Don disappeared did the freezer disappear?

Trish Farr-Payne:  About a week after Don disappeared.

But Trish says she waited years to tell police about her suspicions.

Trish Farr-Payne: I was afraid for my kids. You know, I had my kids. I was afraid for them. I was more afraid for them than anything. 

She says he made that one threat that was especially frightening and bizarre … and maybe revealing.

Trish Farr-Payne: Kenny had threatened to put me in a grinder. He said, "If you try to leave me again, I'm gonna put you in the grinder, like I did Don."

Richard Schlesinger: I'm sorry, he said what? 

Trish Farr-Payne: He said, "If you try to leave me again, I will put you in the grinder, like I did Don." 

Richard Schlesinger: In a meat grinder? 

Trish Farr-Payne: Yeah. … I thought he was tellin' the truth. … I knew deep down that Kenny has some part in Don's not ever coming back. I knew then for sure.

 Richard Schlesinger:  My goodness, so— so you— y— you sort of thought at that point that you were living with a murderer.

Trish Farr-Payne:  Yeah.

Three years after Don went missing, in the midst of her divorce from Kenny Farr, Trish says she finally told the police everything. Kenny Farr wouldn't talk with "48 Hours" on camera, but told us Trish's story is, as he put it, "[an] outlandish lie." 

He says, "I had absolutely nothing to do with Don's disappearance."

Farr also says he cooperated with police at the time of Don's disappearance and even took a polygraph.

Now, attorney Alex Spiro says he's found some new witnesses.

Richard Schlesinger: Have you met these witnesses?

Alex Spiro: Yes.

Richard Schlesinger: And you believe them?

Alex Spiro: Yes.


Richard Schlesinger: Do you consider Trish Farr-Payne credible?

Alex Spiro: Yes.

Attorney Alex Spiro has been investigating the disappearance of Don Lewis for months.  He doesn't want to say much because his investigation is still going on.  But he will say there's been some progress. 

Richard Schlesinger: Has there been a new witness who's surfaced who can shed significant light on what happened or corroborate Trish Farr-Payne's version of what happened or just clear up some of these unclear matters?

Alex Spiro: There have been, yes.

Richard Schlesinger: If that's true, you're a heck of a lot closer to figuring out what happened than many people might know.

Alex Spiro: I like to think I'm closer to figuring out what happened than many people would know, yes.

The obvious question is what about Carole Baskin?

Carole Baskin
Carole Baskin Tampa Bay Times/ZUMA Press

After Don's disappearance in 1997, Carole Lewis carried on at her sanctuary, Wildlife on Easy Street.

On August 19, 2002, 5 years to the day Don Lewis was reported missing, Carole had a judge declare Don dead. Gradually, the investigation into his whereabouts went cold.

 In 2004, Carol got married again; this time to Howard Baskin, a businessman. And the ceremony was unusual even by Florida standards, perhaps.

Leonora LaPeter Anton: Howard wore like, a toga – a tiger-patterned toga. And was like a caveman. And … he came to her on the beach. And she hit him over the head with a plastic bat. And then he picked her up and threw her over his shoulder. And then, apparently, she put a leash around his neck … You know, it's not how I woulda done my wedding, but – [laughs].  

Carole Lewis became Carole Baskin. And Wildlife On Easy Street got a new name, too: Big Cat Rescue.

Leonora LaPeter Anton: Howard has an MBA and a law degree. And he sort of brought – a business sense to Big Cat Rescue. … He brought in, like, a Washington lobbyist. He knew people in the community. He basically was really good at getting donations. 

The organization's mission also changed. There was no more breeding or buying big cats.

Carole is an animal rights advocate, someone who believes no one should own a wild cat – not even herself. She spoke about it in a 2018 interview with CBS affiliate WTSP.

CAROLE BASKIN [WTSP news report]: Our mission is to put ourselves out of business because there shouldn't have to be a place rescuing lions and tigers from people that get them as pets. 

Carole eventually went after Joseph Maldonado-Passage  you know him as Joe Exotic – an exotic animal owner in Oklahoma. In 2010, she tried to stop him from taking his baby tigers to shopping malls around the country and charging money for pictures.

Joe Exotic
Joe Exotic AP Images

Joe fought back and tried to take the name of Carole's organization and make it his own. So, Carole sued him.

JOE EXOTIC [Joe Exotic TV YouTube page]: She has spent over a million-and-a-half dollars just trying to shut me down.

She won. And a judge ordered Mr. Exotic to pay Carole nearly $1 million. And that only added more fuel to their feud.

JOE EXOTIC [Joe Exotic TV YouTube page]:  I'm already so goddamn poor, I use a file cabinet for my dresser drawers. … [Fires gun.]

Joe took to his YouTube channel – Joe Exotic TV – to air his grievances in his own exotic way.

JOE EXOTIC [Joe Exotic TV YouTube page]: Can you believe they spent enough time to build another entire website about me? 

For Joe, nothing was off limits and he gleefully revived those suspicions about Don Lewis' disappearance.

JOE EXOTIC [Joe Exotic TV YouTube page]: Word has it that Carole snuck up on Don in the middle of the night and beat him in the head …

Joe made that music video with a woman who was supposed to be a Carole Baskin look-alike –pushing that unsubstantiated theory that she fed her husband Don to the tigers. 

Joe's hatred of Carole Baskin started feeding on itself and getting more violent.

JOE EXOTIC [Joe Exotic TV YouTube page]: You think I'm obsessed? With you?! Get a life …

JOE EXOTIC [Joe Exotic TV YouTube page]: Carole Baskin better never, ever … see me face to face… 

CAROLE BASKIN [WTSP news report]: He's posted pictures of an effigy of me hanging and pointing a gun to my head.

And Joe Exotic may have done more than pretend to kill Carole.  In 2019, he was convicted of, among other things, hiring a hit man to actually kill her.

Joe Exotic arrest photo
Joe Exotic was sentenced to 22 years in prison for his involvement in a murder-for-hire plot to kill Carole Baskin, as well as wildlife violations.  Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office

He got 22 years. Meanwhile, Carole had a new theory on who might be responsible for her ex-husband's disappearance.

CAROLE BASKIN [Video diary, October 1, 1997]: She clawed his face up pretty badly. He said he had to almost knock her out to get the gun away from her because she was so intent on killing him.


In January 2021, then-President Donald Trump held the keys to Joe Exotic's prison cell. His legal team hoped for a full presidential pardon.

ATTORNEY ERIC LOVE: I think we're going to get the pardon, I do. I'm 100% sure.

A very stretched limo waited near his federal prison, ready to whisk the "Tiger King" away from captivity. But the limo left empty; there was no pardon.

Joe Exotic's case is closed, but Hillsborough County, Florida, Sheriff Chad Chronister still doesn't know what happened to Don Lewis. He thinks Don was murdered and more than one person might be involved.

 Sheriff Chad Chronister: This wealthy individual left and left his wealth behind — left his money behind. You know, when's the last time …  you've ever heard someone leaving without their wealth behind.

But the more bizarre theories about what happened are too much even for a lawman in Florida. 

Sheriff Chad Chronister: They talked about the meat grinder, and that the meat grinders were used to feed the cats … Well, the meat grinders had been removed from the property, you know, several weeks before his disappearance. I'm not saying they couldn't have been involved, but they weren't on the property.

With all those uncertainties and those millions of "Tiger King" viewers demanding answers, the sheriff ordered his team to take a new look at the case.

 Det. Moise Garcia: As a result of "Tiger King" we contacted and followed up on well over 200 leads.

Moise Garcia is a homicide detective for Hillsborough County. He says all those tips didn't help much.

Cpl. Moise Garcia:  A large amount of those virtually useless.

And Garcia says some of his efforts at investigation have been blocked by Carole.

Cpl. Moise Garcia: In the first "Tiger King" there were rumors that Don Lewis was buried in a septic tank or underneath a septic tank on the property … we wanted to go on the property look around … but we were not allowed access. … it is frustrating. I'd like to get on that property and look around a little bit.

Detectives also say they have also been unable to interview Carole Baskin.

Cpl. Moise Garcia: She does a lot of interviews … where she says sheriff's office has not even approached her. That can be very frustrating when you know you've approached her multiple times and you've been told "No."

Cpl. Moise Garcia: Most missing person's wives, spouses, they cooperate with law enforcement.

Carole's alleged lack of recent cooperation does seem to have increased the sheriff's focus on her.

Cpl. Moise Garcia: The only people who have refused to be interviewed has been Carole Baskin and Kenny Farr.

Carole Baskin Tampa Bay Times/ZUMA Press

In an interview with "TMZ," Carole said since Don went missing, she has released scores of documents and done many interviews. "TMZ" reports Carole said she has nothing new to tell detectives and is declining to speak to Investigator Garcia on advice of her lawyer. But she did email "48 Hours" saying Trish Farr-Payne's story about Kenny is false. 

She called Trish's description of the meat grinder, "ludicrous and clearly fabricated." 

And as for Don's family's accusations that she cancelled Don's cell phone just weeks after he disappeared, she says that never happened, and she told "48 Hours," regarding the family, "they are liars."

And Carole says Don's allegation that she threatened his life is just made up.

CAROLE BASKIN [Video diary]: The judge denied his application saying Don wasn't in any immediate danger.

She says she never threatened Don, and he only sought a restraining order to stop her from throwing out mountains of stuff he had accumulated.

But Carole says she may know who did threaten Don. It's an explosive allegation: Carole says it's Gladys – Don's ex-wife — who might be the real villain.

Don and Gladys Lewis
Don and Gladys Lewis Gale Rathbone

According to Carole, Gladys was angry over a lawsuit she filed against Don after their divorce. She sued him for a million dollars, but Gladys lost.

CAROLE BASKIN [Video diary, October 1, 1997]: Could she have been so angry over not getting the million dollars more that she thought she would get, that she would kill Don in a last-ditch effort to recover the money she felt he owed her for all of her suffering?

The Lewis family's new attorney Alex Spiro says that's nonsense.

Alex Spiro: I have seen no credible evidence that the Lewis family has anything to do with Don Lewis's disappearance.

If all the attention is hard on Carole, she's made the most of it. "Tiger King" has made her a queen. She was on "Dancing with the Stars," and she's just come out with a new documentary on the streaming channel Discovery Plus, called "Carol Baskin's Cage Fight." 

As for the Don Lewis case, his family is still hopeful. And they say after more than 20 years, the publicity around "Tiger King" has has changed everything — with more tips and leads coming in every day. 

Gale Rathbone: We feel — literally, we feel like we have an army of angels behind us …

Richard Schlesinger: Is Joe Exotic one of those angels (laughs)?

Donna Pettis: He might be leading the whole band (laughs).

Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office

If you have any information on the Don Lewis case, please call the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office at (813) 247-8200.

Joe Exotic says he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He remains in prison

Produced by Chuck Stevenson and Stephanie Slifer. Jordan Kinsey is the field producer. Richard Barber and Grayce Arlotta Berner are the editors. Patti Aronofsky is the senior producer. Nancy Kramer is the executive story editor. Judy Tygard is the executive producer.  

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