Hillsborough County law enforcement says there’s no suspect in the 1997 disappearance and presumed death of the wealthy Don Lewis, but that isn’t stopping Sheriff Chad Chronister from announcing his theory of the case. He argues that multiple people murdered the alleged victim.
“Listen, there is normally not one person that commits a homicide,” Chronister told TMZ in an interview. “It’s always a couple people. This had to be extremely planned out. This had to be well thought out. There’s someone else involved in this. There’s someone who was paid to do it. There’s someone who helped do it. I’m hoping that person wants to come and get this off their chest and help law enforcement do the right thing.”
It’s kind of ironic that he suggests this was a murder-for-hire case. Lewis’s then-wife Carole Baskin, a Tampa-based animal rights activist, was the recent target of an unrelated plot.
A federal jury convicted rival Oklahoma zookeeper Joseph Maldonado-Passage in January for trying to get her killed. The defendant is better known as “Joe Exotic,” the subject of a Netflix docuseries Tiger King. The show was a smash hit and drew renewed public attention to the Lewis disappearance. One episode zeroed in on the case, the friction between Baskin and her late husband’s family, and Maldonado-Passage’s pet theory that Baskin murdered her husband.
Exotic didn’t do any of this out of any great respect for Lewis. Baskin had tried to run Maldonado-Passage out of business, and also beat him in a lawsuit. That said, the show also used other points of view to approach the missing man’s fractured relationship with his wife.
In a petition for a protective order, Lewis claimed his wife threatened twice to kill him.
“She has a .45 revolver, and she took my .357 and hid it,” he wrote at the time.
“Daddy never really involved ‘the law’ in anything,” Lewis’s daughter Gale Rathbone told the show. “It was just something that he resisted. For him to go down there and write that out and present it before a judge was major in my eyes. That is not something he would do unless he was at his wits’ end with how to protect himself.”
The order was denied.
As discussed on the show, Baskin allegedly had the couple’s wills and powers of attorney documents taken from Lewis’s office. The husband’s power of attorney document was revised to activate on his disappearance, instead of just his death.
“In that respect, this is terribly unusual,” Lewis attorney Joseph R. Fritz said. “Everyone anticipates their death, but who in the world anticipates disappearance?”
Baskin, who has since remarried, said that the last thing Lewis said to her was that he needed her to get another man to get a truck ready because he was leaving early the next day to Costa Rica.
Lewis has since been declared dead. No charges have been filed in the disappearance. Chronister didn’t absolve Baskin in the TMZ interview, but stopped short of even describing her as a “person of interest.”
“I’m extremely suspicious, but not just of her–of this whole circle here,” he said. “Extremely suspicious. Like I said, I don’t want to allude to the fact or insinuate that she’s our person of interest and this is who we’re focusing on. I’m not comfortable saying that yet.”
The sheriff’s office has been taking advantage of the show’s newfound popularity and using it to facilitate the Lewis investigation. Chronister previously said that Baskin declined to take a polygraph test, and that she told them her attorney advised her it wouldn’t prove her innocence.
Fritz voiced a lack of trust in the sheriff’s office’s motives. He argued that investigator only started looking into Lewis again because they had “no choice” amid new questions from viewers.
Authorities “wanted to have a chat with me and have not found time in 24 years to come visit with me,” he told Fox News. Fritz claimed that the sheriff’s office engaged in “sloppy police work,” waiting days to collect samples from Lewis’s abandoned van. The attorney claimed two sources told him the same story about what happened to the victim. On the show, Fritz declined to say who he suspected of being behind the disappearance.
[Screengrab via TMZ]
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