An inside look at the puzzling 1997 cold case disappearance of the Florida millionaire.
Carole Baskin‘s then-husband, millionaire Don Lewis, was reported missing on August 19, 1997. At the time, he and Carole were married and living in Tampa, Florida.
Carole Baskin has repeatedly denied she had anything to do with Don Lewis’ disappearance.
Don’s First Marriage
Don Lewis was married to Gladys Lewis when he first met Carole in 1981. Gladys and Don raised a family [pictured]. Their daughters say they had a happy childhood and that their father had a passion for animals. “We had a variety of animals,” Gale Rathbone, Don’s youngest daughter, told “48 Hours.” “We would come home from school, and there’d be a baby alligator swimming in the bathtub.”
But not everything was perfect in the Lewis household. Don’s first wife Gladys says her husband had multiple affairs – including a nearly 10-year affair with Carole. In 1990, nearly 10 years after Don and Carole first met, Gladys and Don divorced.
A New Marriage
A year later, in 1991, Don married Carole and they eventually founded Wildlife on Easy Street, an animal sanctuary where they raised tigers and other exotic animals.
Trouble in Paradise
But Don and Carole Lewis ended up having a troubled marriage, too. They disagreed over what to do with their animals. While Don wanted to breed and sell, Carole was against that and wanted to focus on rescuing.
In the summer of 1997, Carole Lewis reported Don missing. The only trace of him was his van, which was found at a remote airport about half an hour from where the couple lived. Don’s keys were reportedly still in the vehicle.
The night of August 17, 1997
Carole later recounted the events leading up to her husband’s disappearance. After 11 p.m. on August 17, 1997, she says she had to run out and buy ingredients for kitten formula. The store she drove to was closed, and then she says her car overheated. After failing to reach Don on the phone, she walked the six miles back to their home. It was a few hours later—in the early morning of August 18 —that she says she saw Don for the last time as he left to prepare for a business trip.
Don Lewis’ lawyer Joe Fritz [pictured with Don] heard at the time that Don may have been strangled and thrown from a plane over the Gulf of Mexico.
Testing a Theory
Don Lewis was an amateur pilot. He owned several airplanes and his family says he loved to fly.
“48 Hours” correspondent Richard Schlesinger is also a pilot, and flies the same type of plane that Don was known to fly – a Piper Arrow. Schlesinger took to the skies to analyze the theory that Don may have been strangled and thrown from an airplane.
Testing a Theory
Richard Schlesinger reports it would have been extremely difficult to even open the plane door. Winds approaching hurricane strength would be pushing against it.
At the time of Don Lewis’ disappearance, Trish Farr-Payne was married to Don and Carole’s handyman Kenny Farr. In her first television interview, she tells “48 Hours” that she remembers her husband coming home driving Don’s van two days before he was reported missing. She says the van was full of Don’s guns.
Trish says Kenny Farr told her, “‘Don’s gone. And I don’t want you talkin’ about him.'”
Trish Farr-Payne also told “48 Hours” that she remembers a large freezer appearing on their porch around the time Don Lewis disappeared. She says the freezer vanished a week later.
An Alleged Threat
Later on, Trish Farr-Payne said that during a heated exchange with Kenny Farr [pictured], he told her, “If you try to leave me again, I will put you in the grinder, like I did Don,” she recalled to “48 Hours.”
It wasn’t until years later – in the middle of their divorce – that Trish says she told police that she suspected Kenny had something to do with Don’s disappearance.
“[An] Outlandish Lie”
Kenny Farr told “48 Hours” in an email that Trish’s story is “[an] outlandish lie.” He told us he had nothing to do with Don’s disappearance.
A New Investigator
Well-known attorney Alex Spiro has represented such stars as JAY-Z and Mick Jagger. Now he’s working for Lewis’ daughters to help investigate what happened to their father. Spiro says that he thinks Trish Farr-Payne is credible. When asked for further details by “48 Hours,” Spiro said he would not comment further on this active investigation.
As years went by, the investigation into Don Lewis’ disappearance went cold. In 2002, five years after Don disappeared; Carole had a judge declare Don dead. She had been running the animal refuge herself, but she had new plans for Wildlife on Easy Street.
Big Cat Rescue
Carole remarried and she and her husband, Howard Baskin, turned Wildlife on Easy Street into Big Cat Rescue. Its mission was to ban the private possession of exotic cats. On her website, Carole also began condemning those whom she called animal abusers, including Joe Exotic.
Joe Exotic the Tiger King
One of the people Carole Baskin went after was Oklahoma private zoo owner Joe Exotic [pictured], who calls himself the Tiger King. “She has spent over a million-and-a-half dollars just trying to shut me down,” Joe said of Carole in one of his YouTube videos.
The feud between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin was documented in a seven-part series on Netflix called “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” which streamed in March 2020. In the series and in his YouTube videos, Joe Exotic accused Carole of killing her then-husband Don Lewis and feeding him to their tigers.
Over 60 million people tuned in to watch the documentary series. The local sheriff in Tampa was among them and requested viewers to call in if they had any leads.
Anyone with information is asked to call the Hillsborough County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office at (813) 247-8200.
Don Lewis’ family was galvanized by the renewed interest. They started a reward fund campaign to help with their father’s case and an anonymous donor provided $100,000. “We’re hoping that with [these] funds someone will have the courage to come for forward and provide the information necessary to solve this case,” Donna Pettis, Don’s oldest daughter, said at a press conference announcing the reward.