‘Tiger King’: What Happened to Carole Baskin’s Ex-Husband, Don Lewis?

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Like much of America, Chad Chronister recently binge-watched the chronicles of an eccentric roadside zookeeper known as Joe Exotic and his archenemy, an animal activist who wanted him to stop profiting off big cats.

The Netflix documentary featuring Joe Exotic, “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” quickly found a captive audience of would-be investigators, trapped inside homes across the country because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But it also transfixed Mr. Chronister, the sheriff of Hillsborough County, Fla., who days ago was trying to convince a rogue pastor to stay at home rather than hold services at his Tampa-area megachurch.

By Tuesday morning, Sheriff Chronister, who watched the seven episodes of the documentary with his family, was holding a Facebook Live news conference in his kitchen. He wanted to discuss the disappearance of Don Lewis, who ran a big cat sanctuary in the Tampa area before he went missing 23 years ago.

Mr. Lewis was discussed frequently in “Tiger King,” and Sheriff Chronister hoped he could tap into the online frenzy to generate new leads in a case that had been dormant for years.

“These last 48 hours have been crazy. Crazy!” said Mr. Chronister, the fourth sheriff to preside over the case. “We are hoping we can bring some justice and closure to the Lewis family.”

Joe Exotic, a tiger breeder whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, is now in a federal prison cell in Texas, sentenced to 22 years for an unsuccessful scheme to kill the animal activist Carole Baskin, and for killing five tiger cubs. He was reportedly enraged that Ms. Baskin, who was married to Mr. Lewis and an outspoken critic of Mr. Maldonado-Passage, had won a million-dollar civil judgment against him for trademark infringement.

“The series was entertaining and intriguing and interesting,” Sheriff Chronister said. “It prompted me to want to take a more in-depth look.”

The case was never officially closed, but the last time anything significant happened was in 2011, when the police asked Ms. Baskin to take a polygraph. She refused.

The documentary series was released on March 20, as authorities across the country were pleading with people to stay home and blunt the spread of the coronavirus. With newfound time and plenty of restlessness, viewers did not take long to make “Tiger King” a pop culture fixation.

Soon, tips started trickling into the sheriff’s department. Since last week, the department has received an average of six tips a day, the sheriff said, but none have been credible.

Most callers offer theories on who they think is responsible for Mr. Lewis’s disappearance. Many think he was killed.

“We still have it labeled a missing persons case,” Sheriff Chronister said. “We don’t have any type of evidence, not one piece, that suggests that he was killed.”

Sheriff Chronister has met with homicide supervisors and assigned a detective supervisor to cull through the tips. The police have not spoken with Ms. Baskin, who denies any role in the disappearance.

Mr. Lewis left his home on Aug. 18, 1997, never to be heard from again. The next day, police officers found his van at a private airport, the beginning of a hunt that carried investigators from the 69-acre wildlife sanctuary he ran with Ms. Baskin to Costa Rica, where Mr. Lewis owned a 200-acre park.

His disappearance sparked all kinds of rumors, Mr. Maldonado-Passage’s theories among the most pointed. He repeatedly accused Ms. Baskin of killing her husband and of possibly feeding his body to the cats.

But for the most part, the case went quiet. Then came “Tiger King.”

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