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Missing millionaire worries family

Published Sep. 19, 1997|Updated 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 a 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, from lions and leopards to 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. His wife and his children from another marriage have squared off in court over his money, and the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office has taken a keen interest in his whereabouts. Detectives say that while there are no obvious signs of foul play, it hasn't been ruled out.

On Wednesday, authorities received an unconfirmed report that Lewis, 59, was in Costa Rica, where he owns 200 acres near a volcano. They do not know if someone took him there, if someone killed him, or if he left on his own.

He may have had reason to go.

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. But his latest vocation, Wildlife on Easy Street, may have been bringing on more publicity and financial drain than the modest animal lover wanted.

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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 had 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.

"We were both so poor it was terrible," Gladys Cross said in a deposition last year.

That would change. 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 bank account swelled.

"He could step in a pile of cow dung and come out smelling like roses," said Elizabeth Ann McQueen, Lewis' personal business assistant.

He kept hustling as though he was still dirt poor, according to those who knew him. His E Broadway Avenue office was a trailer with newspapers covering the windows. He thought nothing of calling McQueen at 6 a.m. on a Saturday to check the status of a deal.

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 home back to them cheap. If not, he foreclosed.

"Most people who dealt with him were desperate," said Alvin Coulter of Brandon, a former business partner. "But they went in with their eyes open. They were adults when they did it."

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

Regulatory agencies kept after him for housing code and environmental violations. He pleaded no contest in 1994 to dumping trash and burning it on land he owned in Seffner, records show.

"He's got a notorious reputation around here," said Leslie Campbell, enforcement supervisor at the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission.

Lewis eventually amassed holdings of some 350 parcels in five Florida counties, held under numerous names and trusts, according to property and court records.

"They didn't want anybody to know about how much money they had," said Sheldon Wind, Lewis' long-time attorney, in a sworn deposition in 1996.

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The secrecy extended beyond his finances. For the first three years she knew him, Lewis used a different name, and claimed to work for someone named Don Lewis, Carole Lewis said. He didn't want her to love him for his money, she said.

They met on the side of Hillsborough Avenue when she was 19. He saw her from his car as she walked along the road; he pulled over and asked her out.

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

At some point, Gladys knew about that affair and others. She used to pack extra food in his lunch, and she knew it was for his girlfriends; they would leave love notes and lipstick-stained napkins in Lewis' lunch box.

Lewis dated women "younger than our daughters," Gladys Cross said. "I couldn't compete with that."

After 34 years, she asked for a divorce in 1990. That, too, involved secrecy, as the couple went to Sumter County to complete the split. Cross later sued Lewis in 1994 alleging he had hidden the couple's wealth during the divorce, and settled for $148,000.

A year after the divorce, Lewis married Carole Stairs at the Polk County courthouse. She wore a tank top and a $14 wedding band Lewis bought at a pawn shop.

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.

"A lot of these animals have every reason in the world to hate you more than any other animal," said Al Cochran, a volunteer at the center. "But Don found it in his heart to love them."

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."

The refuge's Web site said it lost money last year, and volunteers were organizing a fund-raising golf tournament about the time of Lewis' disappearance.

In 1994 the Lewises were cited for buying leopards without the proper license, and the animals were confiscated. The Lewises sued the state Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission over the move. The case is pending.

In 1996 they were cited when a cougar escaped from a pen.

The commission's Lt. Dennis Parker said things have improved at the refuge.

Lewis also had paperwork problems with the Federal Aviation Administration. Flying without a pilot's license in 1988, he hit some wires while landing at a crop duster's strip near Pensacola during a storm. He failed to get a weather briefing before taking off, according to FAA records.

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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 McQueen secretly has 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.

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

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

Carole Lewis suggested in court records that her husband's children are angry about being cut out of his will, something he did after Gladys Cross' 1994 lawsuit. The children supported Cross.

"Kids always side with their mother," Carole Lewis said, "even if it means turning on their Dad."

But the couple's own relationship became turbulent over the summer.

On June 12, Don Lewis petitioned for a domestic violence injunction against his wife, saying she had threatened to kill him. A judge found that Lewis was in no danger, and denied the injunction.

According to records, the couple had fought over a pile of junk Lewis had collected at yard sales, his weekend passion. While Lewis was in Costa Rica, his wife paid someone to haul the pile away from the yard. Lewis was furious and sought the injunction.

The fights no longer matter to Carole. Her long blond hair swept up in a cheetah-print hair band, her eyes welling with tears, she said recently she wanted terribly to find Don.

Wildlife volunteers also await his return.

Said Susan Aronoff, a former volunteer, "I would like to think that Don was sitting on a remote island somewhere, laughing at us for being so worried about him."

_ Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Barbara Oliver contributed to this story.


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