Sheriff Chad Chronister says the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is feeling the Tiger King effect.
Chronister said the agency is receiving about a half dozen tips per day related to Tampa’s Jack “Don” Lewis, once husband of Big Cat Rescue CEO Carole Baskin. Lewis’ 1997 disappearance is chronicled in Episode 3 of the wildly popular Netflix series.
In a news conference held online, the sheriff said investigators met on Monday to review the original case files, which included several large binders full of documents. Chronister has assigned a detective supervisor to handle all the leads coming in.
There have been no substantial tips thus far, Chronister said, but he’s hopeful that will change.
“If you have seen the series ... there was a lot of questions and theories of who was loyal and was someone really there as a spy,” Chronister said. “So what we’re hoping is maybe someone has had a change of heart, maybe a relationship status has changed. Anything that will prompt someone to call with a legitimate lead, a piece of evidence.”
Chronister said the last action on the cold case happened in 2011, when the sheriff’s office asked Carole Baskin to take a polygraph test. While others involved agreed to take the lie detector test, Chronister said, Baskin declined, citing her attorney’s advice that “it wouldn’t vindicate her of anything.”
The previous year, investigators collected DNA from Don Lewis’ children. Chronister said if any physical evidence is found, that DNA could be used in a national database to match it to Lewis.
Asked why investigators never tested the meat grinders at Big Cat Rescue — a scene in Tiger King suggests they could have been used dispose of Lewis — Chronister said both grinders were removed from the animal sanctuary before the wealthy Lewis disappeared. “I’m not saying they couldn’t have took them to a different location and used them somewhere else,” he said.
The sheriff stressed how complicated the Lewis investigation had been, comparing it to the sensational plot line of the Tiger King series. For example, Chronister said Hillsborough detectives visited Lewis’ property in Costa Rica decades ago. One security guard posted outside said he’d seen Lewis since his reported disappearance. Another security guard, posted not far away, said he’d seen no trace of him.
“So we’ve tried over the years ... to do everything we can to try to solve this case. And so far, there’s been no evidence, and unfortunately, we weren’t in this technological era that we are now. There was no GPS and cell phones, something that probably would help us solve this case if it would have would have occurred now.”
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The sheriff’s office has not reinterviewed Baskin or Lewis’ children since the release of Tiger King.
Chronister said he is prepared to dedicate resources to solving the case, if the sheriff’s office receives credible leads. So far, many of the calls and emails to detectives have been people simply sharing theories, a sheriff’s spokeswoman said.
“We’ll dedicate the entire homicide section and beyond,” Chronister said. “There’s nothing more important to us than bringing justice to his family, his family who received no inheritance from an individual who fled. ... Have you ever heard of a case where a wealthy individual fled, for whatever the reason was, and didn’t take their money with them?”
Chronister addressed questions relating to Lewis’ will, and the use of the word “disappearance” in a document granting Baskin power of attorney. He said one witness who claimed to have watched the will being signed later changed her story. He also said there is not enough evidence to say if there was foul play involved in the will.
Some of the subjects who appeared in Tiger King suggested the will was forged.
“And I have to tell you that I don’t feel comfortable that it wasn’t,” Chronister said earlier on Tuesday in an interview with WFLA-AM. “How many of us have a will that says if I’m kidnapped or I disappear, give my money to this person?”
Baskin said Tiger King is full of “unsavory lies” from “people who are not credible.” She previously addressed the use of the word “disappearance” in a blog post titled “Refuting Netflix Tiger King.”
“Don had told me about people going to Costa Rica and disappearing. Our Costa Rican attorney, Roger Petersen, said the Helicopter Brothers were the local version of the mafia and Don was loaning them money. That is why I included ‘disappearance’ as an event that would activate the power of attorney.”
Chronister said he binge-watched Tiger King over the course of three evenings with his wife and son. The seven-part series mostly centers on eccentric zookeeper Joe Exotic and his murder-for-hire plot against Baskin that landed him in prison.
“I thought it was interesting,” Chronister said. "I mean, raise your hand if you’re not a Joe Exotic fan ... even knowing that, you know, he was a suspect to some of his own dealings and some animal cruelty charges. But we have to remember a lot of this was done for entertainment purposes. I think that’s why all of us are so intrigued and engaged.”