The family of Carole Baskin’s missing ex-husband has filed a lawsuit against her and are offering a $100,000 reward for anyone with information about what happened to him over two decades ago.
Don Lewis – who started the animal sanctuary which later became Big Cat Rescue Corp. in Tampa, Florida with Carole – vanished a day before a scheduled trip to Costa Rica in 1997.
In the Netflix phenomenon Tiger King, Baskin’s rival Joe Exotic raised suspicions she fed her spouse to tigers after Exotic was sentenced to 22 years in prison for a murder-for-hire plot against her.
Baskin has denied the allegations.
Attorney John Phillips held a news conference in Tampa Monday and announced an independent investigation into the disappearance of Lewis, whose van was found near the airport and who was declared legally dead in 2002.
Baskin was offered a lie detector test in 2011 but she decline to take it.
Lewis’ body was never found and Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister recently reopened the case.
‘We’re going to serve (Baskin) with a lawsuit, but not a lawsuit for damages, it’s a lawsuit for equity,’ Phillips said Monday during the briefing at Riverhills Church of God.
The bill of discovery would allow them to get information before deciding who to sue.
It means depositions or subpoenas could be on the cards.
‘Generally you announce a $150 million lawsuit and how we’re going to get justice. And we are going to do all of that in time,’ Phillips continued. ‘But our office wants to invite reason, to invite civil conversation where it can be had.’
The family is also targeting Kenny Farr, Don’s handyman who appeared in Tiger King, and a woman who witnessed the signing of Lewis’ will.
That woman, Susan A. Bradshaw, told the Tampa Bay Times in 2005 that Baskin told her to say she was there for the will signing however she claims she was not.
‘Resolving this case is in everyone’s best interest. I believe it’s in Carole Baskin’s best interest. I invite her to the table,’ Phillips said. ‘I invite her to talk, and let us know what really happened.
‘I will ask one time, for civility. I will ask one time that we come together to find closure of this whole thing. If that can’t be done, I’m a lawyer. I sue people. We’ll go that route too. Make no mistake, if the family’s offer for civility is rejected, if the insults continue, the next step is to bring justice, because justice is love.’
The family has paid for Tampa-area billboards asking for information in the case.
‘We worked for weeks in raising this money,’ Lewis’ oldest daughter, Donna Pettis, said on Monday.
‘An anonymous donor came forward guaranteeing the $100,000. We’re hoping that with these funds someone will have the courage to come forward and provide the information to solve this case.’
Criminal defense lawyer, Kaitlyn Statile, from Carlson Meissner Hart & Hayslett appeared on stage Monday and said in an appeal that she would ‘aggressively defend anyone if they needed representation.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff said immunity could be on the table.
Three of Lewis’ daughters were at the news conference as was Anne McQueen, Lewis’ longtime assistant who is named as a plaintiff.
Lewis’ youngest daughter Gale Rathbone, expressed gratitude for those interested in the case.
‘Amazingly, our little family tragedy has become your tragedy. Our search for closure and truth has become your mission also,’ she said. ‘We all know by now that (Lewis) was not a perfect man. But do only the perfect among us deserve justice?’
She added: ‘For 23 years I have gone to bed at night knowing the only chance I have of seeing him again is in my dreams. … Hopefully one day soon we, and you will know the truth.’
The family is worried that people are too scared to come forward with information.
‘We really need someone to come forward,’ family spokesperson Jack Smith said. ‘There is a lot of people who have information who are afraid to come forward … they are worried that if they come forward they will be charged for a crime.’
Baskin did not immediately respond to an email or Facebook message Monday for comment on the latest legal developments.
Lewis’ case, and Baskin, were featured in Tiger King. Baskin is still the owner of Big Cat Rescue, and lobbies for abolishing private wildlife ownership.
Tiger King was a documentary series about Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as ‘Joe Exotic,’ an eccentric former Oklahoma zookeeper who loves big cats.
Earlier this year, Maldonado-Passage was sentenced to 22 years in prison for his role in a murder-for-hire plot. He was convicted of trying to hire someone to kill Baskin, who had tried to shut him down, accusing the Oklahoma zoo of abusing animals and selling big cat cubs.
In retaliation, Maldonado-Passage raised questions about Baskin’s former husband. The documentary extensively covered Maldonado-Passage’s repeated accusations that Baskin killed her husband and possibly fed him to her tigers.
Baskin hasn’t been charged with any crime and has repeatedly released statements refuting the accusations made in the series. She is now married to Howard Baskin.
Maldonaldo-Passage is currently in prison. A federal judge in June granted control of the Oklahoma zoo that was previously run by Maldonado-Passage – also known as Joe Exotic – to Big Cat Rescue Corp.
Baskin previously sued Maldonado-Passage for trademark and copyright infringements and won a $1 million civil judgment against him. The judge found that ownership of the zoo was fraudulently transferred to Maldonado-Passage’s mother in an attempt to avoid paying the judgment.
In March, the Hillsborough County sheriff asked for tips in the case of Lewis and announced a reopening of Lewis’ case.
‘We may or may not have have hopped a fence yesterday just to try to investigate and find out if, you know, if this was a place where Don Lewis could have been buried,’ Phillips said in an interview with HLN on Sunday.