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Millionaire's disappearance a mystery to family, friends

Published Oct. 2, 2005

On the morning millionaire Jack Donald Lewis disappeared, he was wearing a $1 T-shirt from Kmart and blue jeans bought at a yard sale. He left behind an 8-year-old Dodge van with a broken window and battered grill.

He also left behind Wildlife on Easy Street, the 40-acre sanctuary in northwest Hillsborough County where he lived and kept more than 100 animals, including lions, leopards, llamas and lemurs.

A month ago, authorities found the van, the keys on the floorboard, at a private airport in Pasco County, where Lewis, who has crashed planes in the past, was known to buy aircraft impulsively _ with cash.

Lewis' disappearance has worried his friends and family, knotted his business affairs and mystified law enforcement. Volunteers from his big-cat sanctuary have distributed more than 1,000 missing person fliers. A psychic has visited his house.

On Wednesday, authorities received an unconfirmed report that Lewis, 59, was in Costa Rica, where he owns 200 acres near a volcano. Hillsborough sheriff's deputies do not know if someone took him there, if he disappeared on his own, or if he is still alive.

In June, Lewis told a Hillsborough circuit judge that his wife threatened to kill him, but the judge did not see a danger. That same month he visited a psychiatrist at his wife's urging, but did not return for follow-up visits, she said. He also told her several times he wanted a divorce, but she said he wasn't serious.

"It has been very, very difficult." Carole Lewis said. "It's what you both love and hate about him. I love that free spirit. He could just completely do something way, way out."

He's been his own man all his life, boot-strapping himself from Depression-era childhood to financial success through trucking and real estate.

Lewis was born in Dade City to a single mother of three, who sold fresh bread and worked as a seamstress. In high school, he held several jobs, including mechanic and farm hand. He graduated from Pasco High School a year ahead of schedule in 1955. Girls adored him.

"He always seemed to know where he was going," said Gladys Cross, Lewis' first wife.

The couple met at the A&P when Lewis, a bag boy, winked at her.

Two years after their first date, they married. She was 14; he was 17. Eleven months after that, their first daughter was born.

Lewis started hauling rock and sand in Dade City, then bought five dump trucks. In the early 1960s, he began driving tankers for Texaco and Red Wing Carriers in Tampa. On the side, he bought washing machines, repaired them, and resold them at profit. He invested in used cars, making money at auctions.

His next big move was into real estate. Lewis bought bad mortgages from other lenders, then let homeowners remain if they paid him 18 percent interest. If they made six house payments on time, he would sell the mortgage. If not, he foreclosed.

His bank account swelled.

Wendell Williams, a real estate investor who knows Lewis, added, "I don't want anyone to think Mr. Lewis was not ruthless, because he was."

Carole Lewis was attracted to his free spirit.

"I just fell in love with him at first sight," said Carole Lewis, now 36, who met him at 19. They carried on an affair for years before his 1990 divorce, she said.

Shortly after they married, the couple started Wildlife on Easy Street, a center for exotic cats set on 40 acres of tall pines, high grass and flowering bushes at the end of a dirt road at their home in Citrus Park.

Today, they care for more than 100 lynx, ocelots, cougars and leopards, as well as otters, lemurs, llamas and horses. They nurse animals such as Nicoma, a lion who drags an injured hind leg, and promise to find the unwanted animals permanent homes.

Critics say Lewis turned the refuge, which is organized as a Florida not-for-profit corporation, into another business. They say he bought cats cheaply at auctions and then sold them to buyers impressed by the center's non-profit status.

"That was a point of conflict between Don and I," Carole Lewis said. He wanted to sell the animals. She wanted to keep them.

"He would always say that everything had a price."

If Lewis left intentionally, he didn't do much planning. His disappearance created a vacuum of power at his business enterprises, and questions about who had authority to act in his absence.

About two weeks ago, according to court records, Carole Lewis entered her husband's office on E Broadway. His children accused her of improperly taking documents, and asked for a court order to keep her away.

Carole Lewis responded with her own accusations, claiming in court documents that Elizabeth Ann McQueen, Don Lewis' personal business assistant, secretly transferred $435,273.24 to her own name since May, when Don Lewis began traveling to Costa Rica.

McQueen denied taking any money, saying Lewis always kept his assets under different names. "I have done nothing that Mr. Lewis did not instruct me to do," she said.

A judge appointed a conservator to, with Carole, jointly safeguard Lewis' holdings, valued at more than $4-million.

"There is not a lot of trust there between all parties involved," said Gale Rathbone, Lewis' daughter.