The lead detective on the infamous 1997 disappearance of Tampa millionaire Don Lewis said he still believes the case can be solved — but he feels that way about every case.
“If you ask a homicide investigator, ‘Can you solve a case?’ and they say no, you should take his badge away,” Cpl. Moises Garcia said Thursday. “We continue to push hard on this case. ... We still have some avenues. Not a week goes by that we don’t have our hand in this case.”
But 20 months after Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister pledged to renew the investigation, detectives were unable to provide much new information in a mystery again making headlines with this week’s release of Tiger King 2.
At a news conference over Zoom, Garcia explained what the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has done since Netflix’s wildly popular Tiger King documentary made Lewis a household name.
Since March 2020, the Sheriff’s Office interviewed more than 50 people. Investigators have collected DNA swabs from Lewis’ daughters. And they have visited every known property that Lewis owned in Hillsborough County, Garcia said, except for the wildlife sanctuary where he lived with his wife, Carole Baskin.
Lewis owned dozens of properties in Hillsborough County and kept a bevy of exotic cats at his home in Citrus Park. He disappeared without a trace just before a scheduled trip to Costa Rica. Baskin remarried and still operates the nonprofit Big Cat Rescue. All that featured prominently in Tiger King.
Garcia described being denied access to the Big Cat Rescue property as “frustrating.”
He also said only two people have refused to be interviewed by detectives: Kenny Farr, who worked for Lewis before his disappearance, and Baskin, who through her lawyer has declined to speak to sheriff’s investigators on three occasions since Tiger King.
“Most missing persons’ family members, wives, spouses, they cooperate with law enforcement,” Garcia said. “They want to know what happened to their loved one and they cooperate wherever possible.”
Asked if Baskin is a suspect, Garcia said the only person not a suspect is himself. “Everybody else is a possibility,” he said, describing Baskin as a “high-profile person of interest.”
Baskin told the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday that she’s directed investigators to her attorney, adding that “I’ve put everything I know out online via my diary posts.”
Investigators followed up on more than 200 tips the Sheriff’s Office received after Tiger King, Garcia said, adding that “a large amount of those are virtually useless.” Investigators have also reviewed 400 of Baskin’s diary entries.
The Department of Homeland Security recently assisted the Sheriff’s Office through its Panama office by “running down leads in Costa Rica,” Garcia said, and a University of South Florida anthropologist created an age-progression image of Lewis that investigators used there.
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Asked to comment ahead of the news conference, Baskin replied via email with a still frame from Tiger King 2. It showed a supposed Homeland Security document that states that a special agent “learned” Lewis was alive in Costa Rica after he was reported missing. The Times has not independently verified that document.
Garcia declined to comment on the document revealed in the sequel or about Costa Rica in detail, citing the open investigation.
But Joseph C. Dominick, a former sheriff’s investigator who assisted Garcia on the case, told the Times Wednesday that anything in Tiger King suggesting Lewis was alive in Costa Rica is, “all noise.” After looking at all the available evidence, Dominick said he’s absolutely convinced Lewis never made it out of Tampa.
Dominick, who retired from the Rochester, N.Y., police department as a homicide detective and later worked as an investigator for the district attorney there, was one of two civilian investigators hired by the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office this year to help with cold cases. He left the job several weeks ago, he said, for personal reasons.
“It’s definitely a better case than it was 18 months ago,” Dominick said of the Lewis investigation. “But certain elements are missing.”
Dominick declined to get into specifics of what’s lacking, but said it takes physical evidence and eyewitness testimony to build a case that can be prosecuted.
Garcia said investigators spent an “extensive amount of time” looking into rumors that Lewis was buried under a septic tank on the Big Cat Rescue property.
Both Dominick and Garcia said they are fully aware of the internet sleuths who’ve been posting theories online.
“There’s nothing on the internet we aren’t aware of and haven’t already checked out,” Dominick said. “Maybe some of these internet sleuths have it right — and they have pretty much the same stuff that the police have — but there’s some other stuff out there that is just crazy, made up B.S.”
Now, Dominick said, it’s going to take someone with firsthand knowledge of what happened. “I strongly believe from what I know that those people are out there,” he said. “They need to come forward.”
Carole and Howard Baskin released a written statement in response to Tiger King 2 earlier Thursday calling it “nothing more than a rehash of the first season with a few misleading additions.”
Editor’s Note: An undated Homeland Security document revealed in Tiger King 2 states that there is no evidence of Don Lewis being involved in wildlife smuggling in Costa Rica. An earlier version of the story misstated the content of the document.