Carole Baskin seems to be the name on everyone’s lips. The animal rights activist and owner of Big Cat Rescue sanctuary in Tampa sparked a million memes with her animal print wardrobe and her “cool cats and kittens” greeting. But the number one question surrounding Baskin after Netflix’s Tiger King docuseries remains: What happened to her husband? Don Lewis, a millionaire and Baskin’s second husband, co-founded the sanctuary with her before disappearing in 1997 at age 60. The case has never been solved, and Baskin was never named as a suspect.
The entire third episode of Tiger King dusts off the cold case of his disappearance. Leading the barrage of conspiracies against her is none other than Joe Exotic, Baskin’s rival and former Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park (G.W. Zoo) owner. In the documentary, Lewis’ ex-wife and kids from his first marriage also raise suspicions about Baskin’s husband’s disappearance. Since the series started streaming in March, everyone from Cardi B to your cousin’s neighbor has weighed in.
Baskin came out against the documentary, citing issues with how she was portrayed, and reiterated that no charges were ever brought against her in the case. Below, a timeline of Don Lewis’ mysterious disappearance, including where the investigation stands today.
1981: Carole Stairs and Don Lewis met while both were still married to other people. As she recounts in the Netflix series, Lewis, who was 22 years her senior, pulled his car alongside her and rolled down the window, offering her a ride. After she declined and he drove away, he returned minutes later with a revolver in the passenger seat. “You can hold this gun on me,” Baskin recalled Lewis telling her in the doc. “I just need somebody to talk to.” She got in the car and picked up the gun, while he talked.
1991: A decade later, Baskin and Lewis married and began buying big cats for their animal sanctuary, then named Wildlife on Easy Street. The multi-millionaire and his bride reportedly sealed the deal with a $14 wedding ring and a courthouse ceremony.
June 1997: Six years into their marriage, Lewis filed a restraining order against Baskin. He reportedly alleged in the filing that Baskin had threatened to kill him if he didn’t leave the home. New York magazine reported that the couple fought over their differing views on cat breeding. Baskin was no longer supportive of breeding exotic animals for money. “Don could be a cruel man,” the magazine reported. “The word Carole used in her diary was venomous. Their fiercest fights were about money” and the fact that Lewis was “notoriously promiscuous.”
Aug. 18, 1997: Two months later, Lewis disappeared. Baskin said her husband had left before her that morning heading for Miami en route to Costa Rica.
Aug. 19-20, 1997: Baskin reported her husband missing the following day. Soon after, police found Lewis’ vehicle at a nearby airport, but there was no evidence to suggest anyone saw him that day. Lewis could fly planes and there were theories he may have illegally flown to Costa Rica, where he owned a 200-acre park. Investigators traveled to Costa Rica for answers, but found no new leads. Baskin hired a private investigator, who also came up empty-handed. She was never formally named a suspect in the investigation. However, Hillsborough Sheriff Sgt. John Marsicano, who flew to Costa Rica looking for Lewis, would later tell Tampa Bay Times, “We cannot eliminate anyone.”
1998: “The investigation has not given us a direction on where to look for clues,” Marsicano told Tampa Bay Times the following year, suggesting the case was at a standstill. Baskin reportedly declined to take a polygraph test, per detectives’ request, on the advice of her attorney. She also didn’t permit investigators to search the wildlife sanctuary or the meat freezers. “I would rather be cooperative, but all the legal advice is against it,” she told the outlet.
Later that year, Lewis’ children publicly suggested Baskin was involved in their father’s disappearance in an interview with People. “It’s a perfect scenario to dispose of someone,” his eldest child, Donna Pettis, told the outlet. “We were upset that the cops didn’t test the DNA on the meat grinder.” Baskin responded: “My tigers eat meat; they don’t eat people. There would be bones and remains of my husband out there. I’m amazed that people would even think such a thing.”
Baskin was also in a legal battle with Lewis’ children for control of his more than $5 million estate. “Can you imagine having people think you killed your husband or wife and not being able to prove otherwise?” Baskin told People at the time. “Without a body, there is nothing I can do to clear my name.”
2002: Five years after his disappearance, Lewis was declared dead. The documentary explained that with this legal declaration, Baskin now had full access to Lewis’ will, of which she was also the executor. The document contained a specific clause in the event of a disappearance, which a lawyer who worked with Lewis said in the Netflix doc was not common.
That same year Baskin met her third husband, Howard, at a local aquarium’s cocktail party, per New York magazine. “At that party, Howie won Carole’s adoration immediately,” a post on the Big Cat Rescue website reads. The following year, Howard joined the renamed Big Cat Rescue full time as chairman of the Advisory Board.
On Nov. 1, 2004, the couple wed, and snapped “caveman takes bride” themed wedding photos. Carole wore white and her signature flower crown. Howard sported a Flinstones-like costume, posing in a leash and collar in one wedding photo and jokingly clubbing Carole over the head in another.
2011: The New York Times reported that the last significant event in the search for Lewis happened this year, when police requested Baskin take a polygraph again. She again refused.
September 2015: Baskin’s rivalry with Joe Exotic reached a new low when he released the country music song, “Here Kitty Kitty.” The music video depicted a Carole look-alike feeding her husband’s remains to a tiger. (Joe Exotic is currently serving 22 years in prison for his role in a murder-for-hire plot against Baskin.)
March 28, 2020: Eight days after Tiger King hit Netflix, Howard shared his thoughts about the project on Big Cat Rescue’s YouTube channel. “Anyone who spends an hour with Carole would come away knowing she didn’t have any involvement in Don’s disappearance,” he said in the video. He also claimed that the couple “have never had an argument” and said he is “the luckiest man in the world.”
March 31, 2020: Nearly two weeks after Tiger King was released and became a viral sensation, Baskin responded to rumors she played a part in Lewis’ disappearance. In a blog post titled “LIES IN NETFLIX ‘TIGER KING’ REGARDING DISAPPEARANCE OF DON LEWIS AND OTHER MISINFORMATION ABOUT BIG CAT RESCUE,” she referred to the series as “salacious and sensational.”
She devoted a sizable portion of her statement to claims she was involved in her second husband’s disappearance, writing:
“[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 unsavory lies are better for getting viewers.”
In a statement to Entertainment Weekly, Baskin’s rep added, “We have not been approached about a new episode (of Tiger King) and would not participate if asked.”
April 1, 2020: In Florida, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister told the New York Times, “We still have it labeled a missing persons case. We don’t have any type of evidence, not one piece, that suggests that he was killed.” Chronister admitted the show’s popularity had led to about six tips a day for the case, although he noted none have been credible.
Chronister outlined future plans for the case in a press conference at his home. He also clarified some elements of Tiger King, including the fact that the septic tank where many posited Baskin could have dumped her ex-husband’s body was not installed until years after Lewis vanished. The meat grinders mentioned in the documentary were also “removed several weeks before his disappearance,” the sheriff said, per Esquire.
Chronister told the Times that he’d met with homicide supervisors and members of his department to examine new tips.
April 13, 2020: In a new clip published by TMZ, Chronister suggested multiple people might be involved in Lewis’ disappearance. He explained “There’s normally not one person that commits a homicide, it’s always a couple people.”
However, the sheriff said he’s “not comfortable” identifying Baskin as one of the involved parties. “I’m extremely suspicious but not just of her, of this whole circle here,” he explained. “I don’t want to allude to the fact or insinuate that she’s our person of interest we’re focusing on.”
He continued, “This had to be extremely planned out, this had to be well thought out. There’s someone else involved in this. There’s someone who was paid to do it, there’s someone who helped do it.” Chronister also said he hoped that individual “wants to come and get this off their chest and help law enforcement do the right thing.”