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Tiger King hype prompts Hillsborough Sheriff to re-up Don Lewis disappearance investigation

Sheriff Chad Chronister is hoping the series hype will yield new leads.

As Americans everywhere are obsessing over the new Netflix docuseries “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister is reviving the question: What the heck happened to Jack “Don” Lewis?

Lewis’ disappeared in 1997 and his case has now become famous as Tiger King fans speculate how he went missing and whether he was actually murdered.

Lewis was married to Carole Baskin, the owner and operator of Big Cat Rescue in the Tampa Bay area. Baskin plays a major role in the Tiger King series as Joe Exotic’s nemesis.

Baskin loathed Exotic’s own big cat operation for breeding animals for captivity and then exploiting them for profit.

The series speculates on a number of theories, including the most famous, that Baskin fed her husband to tigers and other large cats.

Exotic produced a country music video in which he speculates about Baskin murdering her husband and feeding him to the tigers at their animal sanctuary. The video shows a Baskin look-alike holding a plate of meat with what looks like Lewis’s head on it while she dangles a hand in front of a lion.

The video has nearly 2.4 million views.

The series also raises other theories including that Lewis was pushed from a plane over the Gulf of Mexico or that he ran off to Costa Rica where he was rumored to have frequent sexual adventures.

Lewis, a multimillionaire, disappeared in the summer of 1997. His van was found at an airport about 40-miles from the sanctuary, but he was never found and the case has since gone cold.

Baskin claims Lewis had left early in the morning the last day he was seen to go to Costa Rica where he planned to establish a cub-breeding operation, a business venture for which Baskin disagreed.

After Lewis’ disappearance, Baskin canceled plans to begin breeding cubs and established the sanctuary merely as a place to rehabilitate large cat breeds like lions and tigers. At the time, Big Cat Rescue was operating under the name Wildlife on Easy Street.

In addition to Exotic, Lewis’ ex-wife and children suspect Baskin of foul play in Lewis’ disappearance, but law enforcement investigators have never found a reason to believe those allegations.

Lewis did frequently travel to Costa Rica, not only for business but because he had allegedly taken a mistress there. Baskin wrote in a blog post that Lewis would go to Costa Rica whenever she was menstruating. She also claimed he was loaning money to a local organized crime ring.

The series highlights just about every form of debauchery one could imagine and creates a binge-worthy narrative of a gay exotic animal breeder, his arch-nemesis trying to stop him, drugs, sex and murder. It’s particularly popular in the Tampa Bay area for its local angle.

Chronister is asking anyone with potential leads to call the Hillsborough Sheriff’s office at 813-247-8200.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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