Decades before “Tiger King,” years before Fringe Florida, I wrote a lengthy article about the mysterious disappearance of Don Lewis, a.k.a. the Cat Man. I worked for the Weekly Planet, Tampa Bay’s then scrappy alternative news weekly. At the time of the article in 1999, Don Lewis had been missing roughly 18 months, and his wife, Carole Lewis (now Carole Baskin), still allowed big cats in their home. Her activism against pet ownership of exotic cats would come later; you can read more about that in my book, Fringe Florida.
It’s good time to pick up a copy as my publisher is running a sweet sale on it in April 2020. Go the University Press of Florida site and use code TIGER for a $15 hardback and $12 paperback with free shipping this month only.
Given the length of the article, I’m sharing it in installments. You can find in its entirety on lynnwaddell.com.
Into Thin Air
On August 19, 1997, an enigmatic millionaire vanished — leaving behind a tangled web of lies, and an estate over which his heirs and associates are still snarling like the wild cats he collected. But most of all, he left behind a mystery that deepens with each strange new revelation.
By Lynn Waddell
Down a bumpy shaded dirt road called Easy Street, past a half dozen trailers, behind an eight-foot chain-link fence, lurks the legacy of Don Lewis. More than 200 tigers, lynx, bobcats, panthers, caracals and leopards slink around in shaded mesh pens, looking as cuddly as house cats and eating 10 times as much. Occasionally, one will dine inside the adjacent small ranch-style home of their master, Carole Lewis, Don’s wife.
Dressed in a sheer leopard print blouse with matching tank and knee-length leggings, the tall blonde Carole Lewis talks about the disappearance of her husband as she glides among the kitty compounds. His story is frequently interrupted with introductions to the big cats she sweetly addresses as “baby” and “my boy.” She gives the cats’ history, and occasionally pets one. She does it keeping her hands flat to the mesh fence, warning that they will bite.
Carole and Don Lewis started this refuge in 1992 after buying 56 bobcats to save them from a furrier’s scalpel. Today, Wildlife on Easy Street is a nonprofit attraction with more than 100 volunteers. All that’s missing is Don Lewis, who still finances most of it.
A self-made millionaire who cultivated eccentricities, Don Lewis remains as mysterious in his absence as he did when he was around. Did he fatally crash into the sea? Was he murdered? Or did he just get the hell out of Dodge? The scenarios seem equally plausible, depending on whom you talk to.
An adventurous daredevil, Lewis thought nothing of flying off in a small airplane he knew little about. He would buy an ultralight plane on the spot if the owner could prove it would leave the ground, and then Lewis would fly it home. But he was a better negotiator than a pilot; he had crashed three planes, one into the Gulf of Mexico. He lost his pilot’s license as a result of flying dangerously.
No shortage of theories
A cut-throat businessman, a landlord with a history of tenant complaints, an aggressive ladies’ man, he frequently carried a lot of cash, often as much as $30,000. Lewis was also a man many people had a motive to feed to the lions. The accusation of foul play hovers in the air of every conversation among those who knew him. Finger pointing is rampant. But few are willing to accuse anyone outright of the crime. Instead the suspects are implied so strongly that even a neutered house cat could probably pick them out of a lineup.
Prior to a settlement regarding Don Lewis’ estate, two of his children spoke to People Magazine and suggested their father was fed his exotic cats. They could not be reached for comment for this article. Their attorney did not return phone calls.
Elizabeth Anne McQueen, a squatty direct woman with long acrylic nails, was Don Lewis’ business assistant for 18 years. She and her new boss, Wendall Williams, a sometimes business partner of Lewis, have appeared on the television show “Hard Copy,” insinuating that someone helped Lewis disappear. Both told the Planet that they believe Lewis was killed by “someone close to him.” Williams goes even further: “I don’t think she (Carole Lewis) would think it gruesome to put him in a meat grinder, grind him up and feed him to the cats. I’m just not sure she could do it physically by herself.”
Two months before Lewis’ disappearance he filed an injunction seeking to have Carole removed from their home, claiming she threatened to kill him. “She ordered me out of the house or she would kill me and if I came back she would kill me (She has a 45 revolver and she took my 357 and hid it)” Lewis wrote in his injunction request.
But several volunteers on Easy Street find it hard to believe that Carole Lewis could have murdered a man she so loved. “I know Carole is such a nice person,” Sandy Wittkopp, a housekeeper and volunteer, said. “She could never have done what they are saying. They were madly in love with each other.”
Richard Reed, a Tampa mortgage broker and former volunteer at Easy Street, said he thinks Don Lewis was murdered. When questioned about who he believed killed Lewis, he replied “No comment.”
Carole Lewis also has a long list suspects of those who may have been involved in her husband’s disappearance. And because McQueen and Williams are publicly denouncing her, she questions their involvement.
“She (McQueen) and Wendall Williams have made a career out of trying to make the public, the police and everybody else think that I’ve done something to Don,” Carole Lewis said. “And if anybody knows better in this entire world it is her. So, I can only assume the reason for putting so much attention or trying to focus so much attention on me is to take the focus off what their part in this was.”
There’s also a chance Don Lewis purposely flew away and didn’t come back. Some friends speculate he’s somewhere laughing at the chaos he left behind. After all, Lewis labored at being an enigma. Worth upwards of $6 million, Lewis bought his clothes at yard sales and thrift stores. He told people he couldn’t read, while others say they saw him read. He even told his wife Carole that his name was Bob Martin when they first met. It took her nearly three years to learn who he really was.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office is still investigating Lewis’ disappearance. The case is classified as missing with suspicious circumstances. Because it’s an open case, the investigators refuse to share their theories. But from a compilation of other, often contradictory reports, calling his disappearance suspicious is an understatement.
(Stay tuned for Part II)