Police reveal details of Tiger King cold case
It's the Netflix documentary that's taken the world by storm, but Tiger King is not only shining a light on the treatment of exotic animals in the US - it's also catapulted the mystery over Carole Baskin's missing millionaire husband Don Lewis into the spotlight.
The seven-episode true-crime program follows the wild and twisted life of Joe Exotic, real name Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, 57, and his associates and enemies in the big cat world.
And now the sheriff leading the ongoing investigation into Lewis' disappearance has revealed he's ordered his team to go over every last detail of the original case from scratch - and explained exactly why he believes Lewis was murdered.
Ms Baskin, who runs the Big Cat Animal Sanctuary in Tampa, Florida, features in the documentary series thanks to her rivalry with animal collector Joe Exotic.
However, it's the mystery over her missing husband that has really captured the world's attention, as viewers share wild theories over how and why he disappeared - from claims she killed him and fed him to her tigers, through to allegations he may have been kidnapped or dropped into a septic tank.
Now Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister has revealed his team have been getting an average of six calls a day from people claiming to have a new lead in the investigation - and while none have yet proved valid, it's prompted him to re-examine the original case from the very start, in the hopes of finally getting justice for Lewis' family.
"Most of them are theories," he told The Sun Online. "So far there's no viable leads, but I'm hoping that will change.
"One thing I think we can all agree on is when things become popular, they will likely feel more comfortable, and I'm hoping that someone will now, 23 years later, feel more comfortable to come forward and provide that missing information that we need to solve this case."
'EVERYONE HAD DIFFERENT STORIES'
Lewis disappeared on August 18, 1997, after apparently heading to Costa Rica and never returning.
He was declared legally dead in 2002, and despite allegations by Joe Exotic that she may have had a hand in his alleged murder, Ms Baskin, 58, has always vehemently denied that she killed him and fed him to her tigers.
In fact, Exotic took his theory so far that he even produced a music video that features a Baskin lookalike holding a platter with a model human head and pieces of meat on it, while slowly feeding them to the animals.
"It's so complex and eccentric," Sheriff Chronister says. "And Don Lewis' life was no different."
He said Lewis would make regular trips out to Costa Rica throughout his marriage with Ms Baskin - and it's long been alleged he cheated on her there, while also conducting dodgy business dealings.
"He had a home in Costa Rica, he had a girlfriend in Costa Rica, he had a property manager there, he had shady business dealings with individuals there," Sheriff Chronister said.
While Baskin was due to go to Costa Rica with her husband on the morning of August 18, Sheriff Chronister says, "per her account, he leaves that morning and that's the last time that she sees him".
A few days later, cops discovered Lewis' van abandoned at a private airport nearby.
However, there was no plane missing, and neither of his passports had been flagged - appearing to show he never left the country.
"It was almost like wanting someone to see that he had left the country," Sheriff Chronister says.
"Fast forward, we send detectives to Costa Rica, his girlfriend, the property manager, some other individuals he knew, even the security workers, all said they hadn't seen him.
"Everyone had different stories - and that was the biggest obstacle that detectives ran into - but the common denominator here was no one had seen him (for a while) before his disappearance."
'THERE'S SOME THINGS THAT ARE EXTREMELY SUSPICIOUS'
Tiger King airs a series of wild theories over what might have happened to Lewis, from Exotic's claims that Ms Baskin killed him, ground him up with her meat grinder and fed him to her tigers, right through to claims he was killed and thrown in a septic tank, kidnapped, killed by business rivals in Costa Rica or even crashed his plane at sea.
"There were some things the show got right and some they didn't get right," Sheriff Chronister says.
"The meat grinders were removed from the sanctuary a period of time before he disappeared. That doesn't mean they couldn't have taken him and the meat grinder somewhere else, but that wasn't made clear.
"Then the septic tank … that wasn't installed until years after his disappearance.
"But then some things they got right. He did get an injunction against his wife a couple of months prior. He never served her with it, but he did apply for it. There's some things that are extremely suspicious …"
The documentary explains how Lewis had built up a huge fortune, but left it all behind - and that alone has led Sheriff Chronister to believe the disappearance is highly suspicious.
"What wealthy person - and we believe his wealth was between $5-7 million, some estimate it could be as high as 20, but we can confirm $5-7 million - what wealthy person have you ever met that fled but left their wealth behind?" Sheriff Chronister says.
"He had a relationship with his daughters and son, and he left them behind. They weren't included in the will either.
'I CERTAINLY BELIEVE THAT HE WAS MURDERED'
However, Sheriff Chronister explains that it was Lewis' will - and specifically, a document granting Ms Baskin power of attorney - that really baffled police in their initial investigation, and continues to now.
The document specified that, should he ever "disappear", Lewis' fortune would largely be left to Ms Baskin.
"Who had a will that ever talked about disappearance?" Sheriff Chronister says, pointing out that it would usually discuss what should happen when someone "dies".
"What they (the documentary makers) don't show is, there's one worker that said she worked for Carole and said she witnessed the signatures on the will," he adds.
"Well several years later, she changed her story and said she was pressured to make that statement … But at that point the statute of limitations on a forgery case would have expired."
While he's been forced to wade through a stream of wild conspiracy theories, Sheriff Chronister says he remains confident of one thing - Lewis didn't just disappear.
"The only theory I feel confident in is that he was killed," he says. "Now who did it or how it was done, that's the missing piece of this entire investigation.
"How do you do it (disappear)? Leaving your children behind, your wealth behind, there's a lot of red flags in this case.
"As a 28-year law enforcement official, I certainly believe that he was murdered, but how and where is the missing piece that we need to solve this case."
'WE HAVEN'T HEARD FROM HER'
While Sheriff Chronister makes it clear Ms Baskin is not a suspect in her husband's disappearance, and has always co-operated with their inquiries, he says she did previously refuse to take a Polygraph test.
"In 2010 we asked the (Lewis') children to come in and give DNA swabs," he says. "We had his dental records and some fingerprints because he'd been arrested a couple of times, but we were missing DNA … so they came in voluntarily to do that.
"Then in 2011 we reached out to Carole and asked her to take a Polygraph, and they alluded that she refused to do one - and she did.
"She said that it wouldn't benefit me in any shape or form, it wouldn't vindicate me, it wouldn't keep you from filing charges against me, I'm not going to do a Polygraph test.
"We haven't heard from her since the documentary came out."
'WE'RE INVESTIGATING THE CASE FROM SCRATCH'
Now, as calls continue to come in and True Crime Network ID considers a follow-up series focused entirely on Lewis' disappearance, Sheriff Chronister has asked his team to re-examine the original case from the very start.
"I had a meeting (at the start of this week) and I've now asked them to start investigating the case from scratch. I want every interview re-done, every piece of evidence looked at again," he says.
"I just feel more comfortable, 23 years later, knowing that we've exhausted every lead provided to try to solve this case."
Asked if that could include a search of Ms Baskin's property in the future, he says: "It could be, absolutely."
He says he would consider helping the documentary makers on a follow-up series, so long as it didn't interfere with the investigation - as he hopes the exposure will help bring more leads forward.
"If this could help produce greater evidence to help us solve this case and bring closure to this family - and even justice maybe - then I'm 100 per cent on-board," he adds.
He says the first step now will be to reinterview Lewis' kids, allowing newer detectives a chance to get a feel for who Lewis was as a person.
Since the seven-episode series first launched on Netflix, Ms Baskin has slammed how her first marriage was portrayed, describing the series as "salacious and sensational".
She wrote in a lengthy blog: "(Tiger King) 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 21 years ago.
"The series presents this without any regard for the truth or in most cases even giving me an opportunity before publication to rebut the absurd claims.
"They did not care about truth. The unsavoury lies are better for getting viewers."
This story was originally published on The Sun and is reproduced with permission.
Originally published as Police reveal details of Tiger King cold case