Popular 'Tiger King' Documentary Prompts Police to Re-Visit Cold Case

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Posted: Mar 31, 2020 3:10 PM
Popular 'Tiger King' Documentary Prompts Police to Re-Visit Cold Case

Source: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

Many Americans stranded at home because of the Wuhan Coronavirus pandemic have found common ground watching and analyzing the troubled life of Joe Exotic in the smash hit Netflix docuseries, "Tiger King."

The seven-part series chronicles the life of Joe, an eccentric zoo-owner in Oklahoma who specializes in breeding and keeping big cats like tigers, lions, and other apex feline predators. In addition to his obsession with the enormous, dangerous, animals – at one point he says he has more than 225 of them – Exotic spends an inordinate amount of time passionately railing against a woman he hardly knows: Carole Baskin. 

Baskin, the co-founder of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, has targeted the blond-mulletted, pistol-toting Joe Exotic as an abuser and exploiter of tigers, triggering animal rights activists to harass him both online and in person. In a small production web series starring Joe and his animals, Carole Baskin and her efforts to shut down his zoo take center stage, often with violent images portraying Baskin's death. 

Eventually, Exotic, also known as Joe Maldonado-Passage and Joe Schreibvogel, was arrested in a murder-for-hire plot that, unsurprisingly, targeted Carole Baskin. According to federal prosecutors and witnesses, the plot disintegrated when the hired-assassin pocketed the cash and ran. Exotic then attempted to hire an undercover FBI agent, which ultimately led to his arrest. He was convicted of scheme as well as five counts of animal cruelty and is currently in federal prison serving a 22-year sentence. 

But as the sordid life of Joe Exotic seems to be at an impasse, the story of Carole Baskin has gained substantial intrigue. Discussed over the course of one episode of "Tiger King," Baskin's first husband, Don Lewis, vanished without a trace in 1997, leading viewers of the popular series to speculate on his demise. 

Lewis, a multi-millionaire, co-founded Big Cat Rescue with Baskin and ran the organization with her until his sudden disappearance. She claims that he made frequent, unlicensed, and unrecorded trips on his private plane to Costa Rica and expressed to filmmakers and law enforcement that she imagined his plane crashed and was never found. Lewis' family and now every fan of "Tiger King" are less certain. 

Police from Hillsborough County, stymied by an investigation with no leads that has been cold for over 20 years, relished the newfound spotlight on the unsolved missing persons case. 

Declared dead in 2002, theories about what happened to Lewis have abounded. But the most common assumption among fans of the show is that Baskin killed her wealthy husband and fed him to her tigers. Rumors about volatility in their marriage were widespread prior to his disappearance; Lewis even filed a restraining order against his wife saying she had threatened to kill him. 

Baskin has consistently denied any knowledge of her husband's fate and has refused to take a polygraph. She has also said that Netflix's glimpse into her life was an inaccurate portrayal and purposefully misled viewers. Baskin had hoped the series would focus on the rescue work of her Florida-based organization, not the crimes and personal vendettas associated with the people involved. 

"There are no words for how disappointing it is to see that the series not only does not do any of that, but has instead chosen to be as salacious and sensational as possible to draw in viewers," a statement from Baskin read. "As part of that, they devoted an entire segment to 23-year-old lies and innuendos suggesting I was involved in my husband Don’s 1997 disappearance."