TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – The hit series “Tiger King” has sparked new interest into the missing person case of Don Lewis.
Lewis was a self-made millionaire who founded “Wildlife on Easy Street.” Lewis purchased land in what was then a remote section of Hillsborough County and set up large enclosures for endangered lions, tigers and other big cats.
Lewis’s wife was Carole Lewis, but he vanished in 1997 and she remarried and is now known as Carole Baskin.
Lewis’s body has never been found.
Carole Baskin became a central figure in the “Tiger King” documentary, although she says producers lied to her to get her to participate. Baskin says she was hoping for a treatment in the documentary similar to “Blackfish” a series that drew attention to the treatment of marine life at Sea World.
Baskin says she was hoping to get better treatment for large cats in captivity at facilities all over the United States. Instead, the central figure in the show known as “Joe Exotic” became famous because of his flamboyant lifestyle and his ownership of large cats.
“Joe Exotic,” real name Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, was convicted of numerous counts of animal abuse and for his role in hiring a hit man to kill Baskin.
He is currently serving 22 years in prison.
Monday, Lewis’ first wife and his daughters held a news conference to announce a new reward for information about his disappearance.
“We had lost all hope of knowing what happened to dad,” said Donna Pettis, his oldest daughter. “We’re hoping that with these funds, someone will have the courage to come forth and provide the information necessary to solve this case.”
As she spoke, several crews from Netflix were nearby, capturing every word for a follow up to the popular “Tiger King” series.
Lewis’s family acknowledges the quirky show has brought new attention to his story.
“Amazingly, our little family tragedy has become your tragedy. Our search for closure and truth has become your mission also,” said Gale Rathbone, Lewis’ youngest daughter.
Jack Smith is a private investigator who watched the series and contacted Lewis’s family.
He is now working with a team to look for answers about what happened to Lewis in 1997.
Smith says he has uncovered documents that show a septic tank was dug on the “Wildlife on Easy Street” property in the days just before Lewis vanished.
Smith says he contacted the company that installed the septic system and discovered the new information.
“That septic system was fully installed on the 14th or the 15th at the latest and they told me if there was ever a time to dispose of a body in a septic system, that’s the time to do it,” said Smith.
It’s a theory previously dismissed by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister has now assigned a new detective to the case as a result of new tips coming in due to the “Tiger King” series.
Smith says he’s hoping the $100,000 reward now being offered will convince someone else to talk about what they know.
“We really need someone to come forward, in the case that has information and there’s a lot of people out there that has information but they are scared to come forward,” said Smith.
Attorney John Phillips is now also involved in the case. He is representing Lewis’ family and has filed a lawsuit, hoping to Carole Baskin and others to find out what they know about the case.
The family believes the signature on Lewis’ will is a forgery. Phillips says he will investigate that.
“Everything at that point shows there was some sort of motive to deceive,” said Phillips.
Baskin says she will not comment because of the pending litigation.
Lewis’ daughters say they just want to know what happened to their father
“I still to this day miss my dad. I love my dad. For 23 years I’ve gone to bed knowing the only chance I have to see my dad is in my dreams,” said Gale Rathbone.
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