Carole Baskin denies having had anything to do with her husband's 1997 disappearance

By Christine Pelisek
April 08, 2020 03:00 PM
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Don Lewis, a 60-year-old millionaire and animal sanctuary owner, mysteriously vanished on August 18, 1997.

Days after his disappearance, deputies found his van abandoned at a nearby airport, where he allegedly had planned to take a trip to Costa Rica. Lewis’ keys and briefcase were inside. Police found no signs of a struggle or blood inside — nor did they find proof that Lewis ever left the country.

In the intervening decades, his disappearance has remained a mystery. But since the release of Netflix’s seven-episode series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness about the long-running rivalry between Joe Maldonado-Passage or “Joe Exotic,” the now-imprisoned big-cat enthusiast, and Carole Baskin, Lewis’ wife at the time he went missing, police are hoping for a break in the case.

“Once I saw how popular this Netflix documentary series has become, I’m like, ‘Listen, we need to take advantage of this,’” Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister tells PEOPLE. “I just thought, Wouldn’t it be phenomenal if we could glimmer some type of evidence, an interview, anything that would help us solve this disappearance case?’”

Last week, Chronister asked on Twitter that anyone with any information about Lewis’ disappearance come forward.

“We’re getting about six tips a day,” he says. “So far, nothing viable. More theory-driven. But I’m going to be honest with you: I remain optimistic. Somebody’s going to watch this show and it’s going to prompt them to call us.”

For more on Netflix’s wild hit docuseries Tiger King, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.

Chronister says there are many unanswered questions, but one thing he’s certain about is that Lewis didn’t voluntarily disappear: He was murdered.

“I believe it was a homicide,” he says. “Now how and who’s responsible for it? That’s the unknown part right now. I wish I had more answers. I only hope, with the popularity of this Netflix series, that I’ll get those answers.”

Don Lewis, Carole Baskin
Carole Lewis/Tampa Bay Times/ZUMA

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Chronister does not believe Lewis would have abandoned his children or left his millions of dollars behind.

“We estimate his worth to be, back then, was between $5 and $7 million,” he says. “Have you ever heard of anyone who fled or took off and left their wealth behind?”

Lewis’ family has long suspected that Baskin, who runs the nonprofit Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla., had something to do with his disappearance. In Tiger King, Maldonado-Passage accused her of disposing of his body by feeding it to her big cats.

Baskin has long denied the rumors, and on her organization’s website slammed Tiger King as “salacious and sensational,” saying it “has a segment devoted to suggesting, with lies and innuendos from people who are not credible, that I had a role in the disappearance of my husband Don in 1997.”

Chronister tells PEOPLE Baskin is “not a suspect at this time.” He adds, “We don’t have any evidence to even call her a person of interest.”

Chronister says the case has frustrated detectives for decades. “It’s just at every turn it seemed like there was another obstacle,” he says. “It was just different stories that everyone told us. But it was almost like the finger-pointing was every which direction. But nothing logical that we could follow up and develop any type of lead.”

Chronister says he is hopeful the case will be solved one day. “Is there anything more rewarding than after 23 years to be able to call the family and say, ‘Here you go. Here’s your closure. Here’s your justice for your father’s disappearance.’”

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is streaming now on Netflix.