▶ Watch Video: Sneak peek: “48 Hours Suspicion”: The Tiger King Mystery

Produced by Chuck Stevenson and Stephanie Slifer

It was the spring of 2020, the start of the season of Covid, and all eyes focused on Carole Baskin. The animal rights activist was at the center of the hugely popular Netflix series, “Tiger King.” She was the arch-nemesis of its star, Joe Exotic. Carole was trying to shut down Joe Exotic’s private zoo in Oklahoma. 

“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 | Vanity Fair senior feature writer: Carole has fashioned herself as more of an animal activist. … She says that what Joe is doing is not humane and should be stopped. Joe saw this as an attack on himself, his business.

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

Joe 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 23 years ago, Carole murdered her husband Don Lewis, and fed him to their tigers. 

Carole 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? In August 1997, he vanished. For the first time on television, a woman says she may know what happened. But let’s begin at the beginning. 

LIFE WITH DON

The story of Carole Baskin‘s life with Don Lewis, like so many Florida stories, 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 Lewis 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. 

Anne kept the books and helped run things. They were quite a team. Eventually, Don 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 Lewis
Don and Gladys Lewis with their three daughters.

Lynda Sanchez

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

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. 

Gladys Lewis Cross: 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 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. 

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. 

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Carole and Don Lewis with one of their tiger cubs.

Tampa Bay Times/ZUMA Press

 
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.  

VANISHED

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. Don had reportedly also been having affairs and talked about getting a divorce. And, if he had gone through with it, it could have been costly, says Don’s lawyer Joseph 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.” 

Anne McQueen
Anne McQueen

CBS News

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. Carole apparently had 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 

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.

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Don Lewis ‘ daughters, from left, Lynda Sanchez, Donna Pettis and Gale Rathbone

CBS News

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? 

Richard Schlesinger: Yeah. 

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?  

Don Lewis' abandoned van
In the summer of 1997, Carole 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

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. 

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

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“48 Hours” correspondent Richard Schlesinger is a pilot, and flies the same type of plane that Don was known to fly –  a Piper Arrow. Schlesinger took to the skies to analyze the theory that Don may have been strangled and thrown from an airplane. 

CBS News

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? As the mystery got deeper, the theories got wilder. 

“DON’S GONE”

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.

And while Carole declined to do an on-camera interview with “48 Hours,” in August, she posted videos of herself reading entries of her diary she says she wrote at the time of Don’s disappearance. 

CAROLE BASKIN [reading from diary, YouTube video]: “Don has been missing since yesterday morning before dawn, which isn’t unusual, except that he didn’t call Anne McQueen all day, and she said she even paged him into the night. And he still did not call her back.” 

According to Carole, Don had a history of vanishing. But she wrote that a deputy did come out to ask her about Don’s disappearance in 1997. She wrote: “if he knew anything about Don’s history, he probably would not have even bothered to drive out here …” 

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: The first time I met her, she was sort of — ethereal, almost, gliding through her – sanctuary.

Leonora LaPeter Anton is a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter and CBS News consultant. She interviewed Carole for the Tampa Bay Times. She 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 they 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.  

kenny-farr2.jpg
Kenny Farr

Trish Farr-Payne

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.

Trish Farr-Payne was married to Kenny for 5 years. This is her first television interview and she says 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. 

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Trish Farr-Payne

CBS News

 

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.” [sniff]

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. 

Richard Schlesinger: Do you remember what you thought when he said that?  

Trish Farr-Payne: I thought he was tellin’ the truth. At that time. I thought, you know, at least – th — that is probably the turnin’ point where I knew — I knew deep down that Kenny has some part in Don’s not ever coming back. I knew then for sure.

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 told “48 Hours” this morning that Trish’s story is “an outlandish lie.” And that when Don disappeared, he cooperated with police and even took a polygraph. He says, “I had absolutely nothing to do with Don’s disappearance.”

The search for Don Lewis seemed to go cold and things might have stayed that way if Carole hadn’t picked a fight with a man who called himself “The Tiger King.”

THE THEORIES

With her husband’s whereabouts unknown, Carole Lewis carried on at Wildlife on Easy Street, feeding her big cats and shrugging off rumors that she was behind Don’s mysterious disappearance. But with no answers, she was having trouble defending herself. 

On August 19, 2002, five years to the day Don Lewis was reported missing, Carole had a judge declare Don dead. Gradually, the investigation into his whereabouts went cold. And Carole soon began dating a man named Jay Baykal. It was not the ideal relationship, says Don’s daughter, Donna.

Carole Baskin
Carole Baskin is an animal rights advocate, someone who believes no one should own a wild cat – not even herself. 

Tampa Bay Times/ZUMA Press

Donna Pettis: He said he was afraid of her. He said he slept with a gun under his pillow. He actually called me … and said that we — we really needed to pursue some type of action … against her.  

In October 2002, Jay Baykal took action himself. Like Don, he tried to get an order of protection against Carole, but it was denied. The judge didn’t think there was enough evidence. In court papers he wrote, “I honestly fear I am in danger of death…” and recounted a story in which he says he asked Carole, “What happens if your husband shows up now?” and she responded, “Dead body can not talk.”  

Richard Schlesinger: Dead bodies don’t talk?

Lewis’ daughters: Uh-huh [affirms].

Richard Schlesinger: What does that tell you?

Donna Pettis: That she knew —

Gale Rathbone: That he wasn’t —

Donna Pettis: — that he was dead.

Gale Rathbone: Yeah.

Donna Pettis: And not missing. 

Not surprisingly, Jay and Carole’s relationship did not last. Carole soon met a new man, Howard Baskin, and in 2004, they got married in an unusual ceremony on a beach in Florida.

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. 

Howard Baskin : Our donations last year alone were up 50 percent.

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

Carole Baskin : Our goal is to end the trade in big cats … we can do it with help from you.

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 Schreibvogel – 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.

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Joe Exotic

CBS News

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

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


Ex-volunteer on whether Don Lewis could have …

01:24

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
In January, 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. But while he’s locked away, Carole has aired her suspicions about who might have killed Don.

IN SEARCH OF ANSWERS

It might seem peculiar, but even though it was Joe Exotic who went to prison in the Netflix series, many thought Carole Baskin came off as the bad guy.

Julie Miller | Vanity Fair senior feature writer: I think there’s an argument to be made that Carole Baskin got a very bad cut of the series. 

Carole Baskin
Carole Baskin

Tampa Bay Times/ZUMA Press

And Carole has come under attack from some of that huge Netflix audience. Armchair detectives thought they might be able to solve the mystery of Don Lewis’ disappearance. 

Julie Miller: Who doesn’t love solving a good mystery? So, there’s been renewed interests. There has been a sudden surge of tips that have flooded the sheriff’s department in Florida. 

As the local sheriff Chad Chronister sorted through leads, he wondered why someone would just vanish — leaving everything. He says he thinks Don was murdered and more than one person might be involved.  

Sheriff Chad Chronister | Hillsborough County, Florida: 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, and people suspect that’s the way it happened and that’s why we’ll never locate him. 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.

The sheriff declined to respond in detail to “48 Hours”‘ requests for comment about this case, except to say there are no suspects — and that includes Kenny Farr and Carole Baskin. 

WTSP REPORTER: Is Carole Baskin a suspect right now? 

SHERIFF CHAD CHRONISTER: She isn’t. She isn’t. She isn’t even a person of interest at this point. … We have no evidence to deem her or anyone else equally as important as a suspect in this case and I’m hoping that the popularity of this Netflix series will change that.

Carole is fighting back against people who suspect her. On Tuesday, September 8, she emailed CBS News saying Trish Farr-Payne’s story about Kenny is false. She says he had nothing to do with Don’s disappearance and that she gave him Don’s guns long after Don vanished.

Carole also says that Trish’s description of the meat grinder is “ludicrous and clearly fabricated.”

About Don’s family’s accusations that she cancelled Don’s cell phone account 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 [reading from diary, YouTube video]: “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 odds and ends he had accumulated. And remember that unusual language in a legal document that gave Carole power of attorney? The document referred to Don’s possible “disappearance.” Carole says there was good reason to use that word.

Carole Baskin : Don was going to Costa Rica all the time. He would frequently disappear for days on end.  

About that scene at Don’s trailer office — she insists she broke into his office after he disappeared because she was worried things could go missing. 

And then, just weeks ago on YouTube, Carole reading from one of those old diary entries, made the startling suggestion that the real person behind Don’s disappearance may be Gladys. Carole claims Don told her his ex-wife had tried it before.

Carole Baskin [reading from diary, YouTube video]: “Gladys Lewis Cross, the kids’ mom, had tried to kill Don on at least three occasions that he told me about.”

Carole says Gladys was angry about Don’s constant cheating. And she says Gladys sued Don after the divorce and lost. According to Carole, Gladys wanted more money — a million dollars more. 

Carole Baskin [YouTube video]: “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?”

And she says Gladys may be trying to frame her. 

John Phillips | Attorney: Everybody in this family, including Miss Gladys, categorically denies having anything or any information about Don Lewis’s death, Don Lewis’s disappearance or many of the other lies that Carole Baskin has expressed in her videos. 

John Phillips is an attorney now representing Doris’ daughters and Anne McQueen. And they are fed up with Carole Baskin.

John Phillips: She’s got a forum. She’s got the ability to post daily and have thousands, if not more than thousands of people see it, and she does so. And, so, there’s daily lies, daily defamation. 

Now, Phillips has helped Don’s family and Anne McQueen file suit against Carole. He says it’s not about money — it’s just about getting to the truth. 

John Phillips: Everybody knows she has information. I mean— you know, more than what she’s putting on a two-minute video. I mean that’s obvious. … There’s no preventing her being deposed — in the next six to 18 months. 

If all the attention is hard on Carole, she’s made the most of it. “Tiger King” has made her a queen of social media

Now, our own big dogs at CBS Studios are getting in on the action in the big cat world. They’re developing a series with Nicholas Cage as Joe Exotic. 

Don Lewis cold case poster
Over 60 million people tuned in to watch the “Tiger King” documentary series. The local sheriff in Tampa was among them and requested viewers to call in if they had any leads.

Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office

The one thing all the shows and all the investigations are still missing, after all these years, is an answer to the question: what happened to Don Lewis? The newest actor in this drama, the lawyer, John Phillips, says we will know the answer … eventually. 

John Phillips: The death and disappearance of Don Lewis is a mystery that can be solved. People on Earth know. And we just— we just appeal to compassion or we’ll— we’ll appeal to the courts of law. However, we have to appeal, we’re gonna find some answers. 

If you have any information, please call the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office at (813) 247-8200. 

Joe Exotic’s lawyer says he plans to ask President Trump for a pardon.

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