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"48 Hours" investigates a "Tiger King" theory: Was Don Lewis pushed from a plane?

The story of the battle between Tampa-based animal rights activist Carole Baskin and Joe Exotic, a flamboyant big cat owner in Oklahoma, is still making headlines nearly six months after its release on Netflix. A reported 64 million households watched the show.

The documentary has generated legions of armchair detectives fascinated by Joe Exotic's claim that Carole had murdered her then-husband, Don Lewis, back in 1997, and fed him to her tigers.

For her part, Carole Baskin, has vehemently denied all the allegations, and Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister has clearly stated as recently as this spring, that Baskin is neither a suspect, nor a person of interest in the 23-year-old cold case. Chronister has also said, that because of the interest in the "Tiger King," he has re-energized the investigation by assigning a homicide supervisor to review the case.

In 1997, when Don Lewis disappeared, the case made sensational headlines in Tampa.  There were many theories about where he might have gone, and what might have happened to him.  In fact, Lewis had been planning to travel to Costa Rica, where he owned property, and often did business. But he had been planning to take a commercial flight from Miami, and apparently never made it.

Then, just a day after Lewis was reported missing, detectives discovered his van at a small airport about a half an hour outside Tampa. The keys to his van were reportedly found inside, but no sign of Don. It wasn't long before several theories and rumors emerged.

In the summer of 1997, Carole Lewis reported Don missing. The only trace of him was his van, which was found at a remote airport about half an hour from where the couple lived. Don's keys were reportedly still in the vehicle. WTSP

It was widely known that Don Lewis was an amateur pilot and had owned a number of small aircraft.

Don Lewis' lawyer, Joe Fritz, told "48 Hours" that at the time of Lewis' disappearance, there was a widespread rumor — that somebody had murdered Lewis in the air.

"I've heard, at the time, contemporaneously with everything — and I know that our sheriff's department has heard this story — that he was strangled from the backseat of an airplane with an electric cord and pushed out 50 feet over the Gulf."

"48 Hours" investigated this possibility and several other of these aircraft-related theories.  It so happens that correspondent Richard Schlesinger is also a pilot, and he brought his own specialized expertise to the investigation. Schlesinger's report, "The Tiger King Mystery," aired on a special "48 Hours" series, "Suspicion." 

One of the planes Don Lewis was known to fly was a single engine, low wing Piper Arrow. Schlesinger also often flies the same kind of plane.  For "48 Hours," he took to the air in a similar Piper Arrow and reported from the pilot's seat as he flew the aircraft.

"48 Hours" correspondent Richard Schlesinger took to the skies in a Piper Arrow to analyze the theory that Don Lewis may have been strangled and thrown from an airplane.  CBS News

"First of all," reported Schlesinger, "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.

Schlesinger continued, pointing out the challenge of moving a body to the door in the cramped cockpit , "Then you'd have to open it... you'd have to keep it opened… 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."

If it was unlikely that Lewis had been pushed from a flying plane, there was also another theory in the air back in 1997. That was the possibility that Lewis simply drove to the airport, got in a plane, and flew himself off to Costa Rica.

In fact, that's what Lewis' lawyer, Joseph Fritz, told "48 Hours" he first figured when he heard Don had disappeared.

"Off of Costa Rica is what I thought. I know he spent a lotta time and money in Costa Rica. … But that's what I initially thought."

As part of the "48 Hours" investigation, Schlesinger spoke with another experienced pilot, Joe Solan, about the range and capabilities of the Piper Arrow:

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

Richard Schlesinger: So, say you were gonna go from the Tampa area down to Costa Rica. It's not a nonstop flight. … So that's like how many refueling stops? 

Joe Solan: Oh probably three to four at least.

Solan explained that in order for Lewis to have flown all the way to Costa Rica he would have had to have made multiple fuel stops along the way. It would have been a lengthy and unlikely journey.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has never released details of its investigation of the aircraft mystery back in 1997. But if Lewis did make the journey, his family says there were never any reports that he stopped to refuel. The Lewis family also says there were no reports of any of Don's planes missing.

So the mystery remains—what happened to Don Lewis? And now with a legion of armchair detectives propelled by the mysteries of the "Tiger King," every clue is being re-examined, including how and why was Don Lewis' van discovered, abandoned at that small airport in Florida. 

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