JACKSON, Miss. — As avid “Tiger King” fans await a bonus episode scheduled to drop Sunday, a Mississippi journalist known for solving civil rights cold cases has begun investigating an unsolved 1997 disappearance made scorching hot by the wildly popular Netflix docuseries.
Investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell announced on Facebook Tuesday that he is looking into the disappearance of Jack Donald “Don” Lewis, who vanished in August 1997.
Lewis, then 59, was the second husband of Carole Baskin, the Tampa, Florida, wildlife activist who served as foil to the titular “Tiger King,” Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka “Joe Exotic.”
Baskin and Maldonado-Passage clashed for years over Baskin’s attempts to have Maldonado-Passage’s Wynnewood, Oklahoma, wildlife park shut down.
Maldonado-Passage was convicted last year of hiring a man to kill Baskin.
Maldonado-Passage, 57, is currently serving a 22-year federal prison sentence for two counts of murder-for-hire, eight counts of falsifying wildlife records and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act. The wildlife crimes stem from Maldonado-Passage’s killing of five tigers and falsifying of paperwork.
The third episode of the seven-episode Netflix series, titled “The Secret,” focuses on Baskin’s past, including Lewis’ 1997 disappearance. Maldonado-Passage repeatedly claimed, both in the series and over the years, that Baskin killed her husband.
Baskin has adamantly denied any involvement in Lewis’ disappearance or death.
Following the debut of “Tiger King” last month, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister announced that he was seeking new leads in Lewis’ case.
Lewis vanished Aug. 18, 1997, after leaving home early to deliver some signs to his lawyer’s office, according to authorities. He was never seen alive again.
“The next day, his white 1989 Dodge van was found abandoned at the Pilot Country Airport, a private airport near State Road 52 and U.S. 41 in Pasco County, Florida,” according to the Charley Project, an organization that profiles missing persons cases. “The keys were on the floorboard and there was no sign of Jack. He knows how to fly a plane and he owned several, but he'd been involved in three aviation accidents and his pilot's license was suspended at the time of his disappearance.”
Baskin has been a source of speculation over the years regarding Lewis’ death, including rumors that she fed him to the cats in their wildlife sanctuary, now known as Big Cat Rescue.
In his announcement, Mitchell, an award-winning former reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, pointed out that Myrtle Beach Safari owner Doc Antle, who is also featured prominently in “Tiger King,” claimed Lewis’ disappearance would never be solved.
It sounded like a challenge, Mitchell wrote on Facebook.
“When (big cat collector) Doc Antle, at the beginning of episode three, said something about, ‘You don’t solve 20-year cold cases,’ I just kind of took that as a challenge,” Mitchell told the Sun Herald in Biloxi. “I thought, let me poke around at this. Let’s take a run at this and see what I can do.”
In the past, Mitchell has shown what he’s capable of. His work helped crack several notorious unsolved cases from the Civil Rights era, including the June 12, 1963, murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers outside his Jackson home and the bombing that September of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Four young black girls died in the bombing.
Mitchell, who now works at the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, more recently helped shine a light on the case of suspected serial killer Felix Vail, who was convicted in Louisiana in 2016 for the 1962 murder of his first wife.
According to the Sun Herald, Vail is also suspected in the disappearances of his second and third wives, both of whom were last seen with him before they vanished.
Like Vail’s wives, Lewis has never been located. He was declared legally dead in 2002.
“There are a number of these that are kind of what we call ‘no body’ cases,” Mitchell told the newspaper. “So it’s not beyond the realm of possibility (to have a case) if you have witnesses and other things. And I think that’s the key.”
Mitchell told the Sun Herald he hopes to give Lewis’ family some answers. The man’s first wife, Gladys Lewis Cross, and daughters have been vocal about their belief that Baskin killed him.
Lewis’ oldest child, Donna Pettis, told People magazine in 1998 that the family believes Baskin was involved in her father’s disappearance. She, like Maldonado-Passage, suggested a novel way of getting rid of his body.
Baskin feeding Lewis’ body to their big cats would be “a perfect scenario to dispose of someone,” Pettis told the magazine. “We were upset that the cops didn’t test the DNA on the meat grinder.”
Mitchell, whose book on his civil rights cases, “Race Against Time,” was released earlier this year, told the Sun Herald that a lack of closure for a family is “a very incredible thing to have to live with.”
“At a minimum, you’d like to have answers,” Mitchell said. “Ideally, you’d like to have justice.”
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