TAMPA, Fla. - A Netflix documentary has had social media buzzing for over a week, allowing viewers to dive into the story of big cat owners. But it's also raising awareness about a missing person cold case in Hillsborough County.
Jack "Don" Lewis was last seen on August 18, 1997. Now, Sheriff Chad Chronister is using this sparked interest over the docuseries, "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness," to ask the public for any information that could lead to answers to what happened to Lewis.
“What we're hoping maybe someone has had maybe a change of heart, maybe a relationship status has changed, anything that will prompt someone to call with a legit lead, a piece of evidence, an interview anything that will help us solve this case,” said Sheriff Chad Chronister.
Lewis was the husband of Carole Baskin, the CEO of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa. The facility is described as a sanctuary that takes in abused and abandoned exotic cats, according to its website. The documentary dedicates an entire episode to the cold case.
On Tuesday, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said over the past four days, the agency received about six tips -- but none are credible yet and most are theories. To this day, the case remains open, and it was never closed.
"I think the great thing that comes out of this is everyone is home. They are watching Netflix," he said, describing the ongoing social distancing across the country. "A lot of theories are coming in -- some saying it's a homicide."
Due to the high interest in the case, Chronister assigned a detective supervisor to handle the incoming tips.
Chronister said he stands by the detective work done in the 1990s. Back then, there was no technology, like GPS or cell phones, that would've helped solve the case.
“If this series generates ‘hey you should take a look at' whatever the end of that sentence maybe we're absolutely going to take a look at it,” Sheriff Chronister said.
In 2011, the sheriff's office asked Baskin to take a polygraph. Chronister said she declined after her attorney advised against it, saying she could be arrested even if she passes it. The year before that, Lewis' family provided DNA that was entered into a data system that could alert detectives if he is found.
Baskin's husband, Howard, who appears with his wife in the docuseries, says he has never questioned whether Carole was involved in Lewis' disappearance.
“There was no way she had any involvement in his disappearance,” said Howard Baskin.
Over the weekend Carol’s husband, Howard posted a video responding to what he called false claims portrayed by Tiger King’s creators.
“As far as I can tell their only goal is to make something as inflammatory and salacious as possible so Netflix would pay them millions for it,” Baskin said.
Chronister said the missing person case is convoluted, and detectives, at the time, kept hitting a roadblock. For instance, two of Lewis' security guards gave different stories on when they last saw him.
Lewis had "shady business dealings" in Costa Rica, the sheriff said, and a girlfriend. He was funneling money down to the country.
He also had two passports, Chronister said, and neither were flagged of him leaving the country. There were no records of him chartering a plane or being on any manifest.
In the documentary, it discusses Lewis' will, which included language that would allow his belongings to be passed on if he went missing.
"Based on my experience, have you ever cracked open a will that said, 'If I go missing, give all my money to whoever that individual may be?" Chronister said. "There's certainly some suspicion surrounding the will."
He said an individual confirmed the will was certified, but later retracted that statement.
"There is just not enough evidence surrounding the will to determine whether it was falsified or not," Chronister added.
One theory the show discussed was that Lewis' body was placed in a meat grinder and was fed to tigers. Another theory wast his body might be under a septic tank at the Big Cat Rescue property.
“The meat grinder shown in the video was enormous. Our meat grinder was one of those little tabletop, hand crank things, like you’d have in your kitchen at home,” Baskin wrote in her blog post refuting the docuseries.
Chronister said the septic tank wasn't there at the time of Lewis' disappearance and said the meat grinders were moved several weeks before his disappearance.
"I'm not saying they could've taken it somewhere else. There was no ability to test them because they weren't on the property," he said.
Chronister also defended Baskin's brother, who was a Hillsborough County deputy at the time of Lewis' disappearance. He said he had nothing to do with the case. The sheriff said he watched the series and believed it was spun for entertainment purposes.
"Raise your hand if you're not a Joe Exotic fan, even though he was a suspect in some of his own dealings," he asked during a virtual press conference.
Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic (SRCSO photo)
There are no plans to interview Joe Exotic, also known as Joseph Maldonado-Passage, for the missing person case. Maldonado-Passage is currently serving a 22-year sentence for trying to hire a hitman to kill Baskin. The Netflix docuseries describes his bitter rivalry with Baskin over the years.
In the documentary, he consistently said he believes Baskin murdered her husband. However, Chronister said Maldonado-Passage has no direct connection to the case. In the meantime, if the sheriff's office receives a credible tip, Chronister promised he will dedicate as many resources as possible to solve the case.
"We hope someone has a change of heart, and calls with a legitimate lead," Chronister said. "Anything to help us solve this case."
Anyone with information about Lewis' disappearance is asked to call the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office at 813-247-8200.