Where is the Cat Man, Don Lewis? Part 2

 

Don Lewis on cover of Weekly Planet

Weekly Planet (now Creative Loafing), March 25-31, 1999

As promised, PART TWO of 1999 article I wrote about the disappearance of Don Lewis, a millionaire big cat owner. I’m sharing it here on the blog in installments. See Part One. You can find the full piece on lynnwaddell.com.

At the time of this article, Don Lewis had been missing roughly 18 months, and a bobcat still shared his  wife Carole’s bed. Carole Baskin’s activism against pet ownership of exotic cats came later; you can read more about that in my book, Fringe Florida, which is on sale this month at the University Press of Florida site.  Use code TIGER for a $15 hardback and $12 paperback with free shipping this month only.

 

Weekly Planet article:

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.

Conflicting recollections

On August 15, 1997, four days before he disappeared, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, a balding 59-year-old Lewis shuffled through a parking lot littered with old motor homes, used cars and trucks toward a modular building. Unshaven and his eyes puffy from a lack of sleep, he entered the office of his $5-million real estate empire.

McQueen studied him. She had never seen him come to work unshaven. “What? Did you forget to shave and take a bath this morning?” she recalls joking.

“I slept in the trailer last night,” he told her, referring to one of seven used travel trailers he planned to resell, one of his many business ventures.

McQueen asked him if things weren’t going well with his wife, Carole.

“No,” he answered.

McQueen heard him dial up his attorney and ask for a recommendation of a good divorce lawyer.

Wendall Williams, who was also in the office that day, says Lewis “had told her (Carole Lewis) she was history.”

But Carole Lewis says there was no divorce planned. Four other Easy Street workers say they had never heard any talk of divorce.

Later that day, McQueen says, she talked to Lewis on his way home and tried to convince him to work things out with Carole.

“It’s not going to happen,” he said.

The following Sunday, Don Lewis called Williams to say he would drop some real estate signs off at Williams’ office the next morning. A few volunteers at Wildlife on Easy Street remember seeing Lewis around. Volunteer Kellie Dorn was in the Lewis’ small kitchen when Don came in bottle-feeding an African desert cub. “Hey, how are you doing?” he asked her. But that was about all he said.

“He wasn’t as talkative as he usually was,” Dorn says. “In retrospect, he may have seemed a little down, although mood swings were apropos for him.”

Dorn’s fiancé, Doug Edwards, also an Easy Street volunteer, says Lewis asked Carole for some directions, but at the time Edwards thought it was just for real estate since the Lewises owned more than 200 pieces of property. Later Edwards learned it was the location of an airplane for sale.

On Monday morning, Carole says, she was still in bed when Don set out on his day’s journey, preparing for a move to his 200 acres in Costa Rica. Williams and McQueen say he told them he was planning to move there and leave Carole on Easy Street. Carole knew he wanted to move some of the cats there, but denies he planned to leave her.

He stood in the doorway of their bedroom, which was decorated with leopard print curtains and bedspread.

“Be sure and have the Costa Rica truck looked at,” Carole remembers Don saying. He wanted her to take the truck to the mechanic because he was planning to ship it the following day to Costa Rica. However, employee Ken Farr says the truck had been taken apart by a mechanic who quit before finishing the job, so it was in no shape to be shipped out the following day.

Lewis then set out in his rusted 8-year-old blue Dodge van with a broken window and a battered grill on what was believed to be a typical day of wheeling and dealing. He was a trader of used appliances, cars, trucks, motorcycles, heavy equipment, planes, real estate — anything he could make a buck on. He often spent his days in the courthouse buying foreclosed mortgages or going through dumpsters looking for something he might be able to repair and resell or feed to his cats. But that day the only indication he made it anywhere were some real estate signs left at his lawyer’s Town ‘N Country office.

Later, McQueen says she tried phoning and paging Lewis to remind him he needed the title for the “Costa Rica truck” and the motorcycles it was hauling.  That afternoon she began punching into his pager her and Lewis’ emergency code, “9797.” That was their signal for “Urgent! Call Me!” Finding a shipper for the truck and getting approval had been a year in the making. It would all be blown if Lewis didn’t remember to take the titles.

McQueen got no response. That night she called him at home until midnight. There was no answer.

On Tuesday she called Ken Farr at Easy Street and left a message for Lewis to call. No response. Later she reached Carole Lewis.

“Do you have any idea where Don’s at?” McQueen asked.

“I haven’t seen him since yesterday,” Carol said.

McQueen says that Carole told her it wasn’t unusual for Don to disappear and “pout.”

But Carole gave conflicting stories. First, she said she became nervous that first day when Don didn’t come home at the cats’ feeding time. Later, she said she he was prone to disappearing for extended periods. “That’s why in the initial first couple weeks or so I didn’t get too excited over it. I felt like it was just him acting out. He’d be over it. He’d be home. It took a while for it to settle in.”

Lewis’ truck was found the next day, August 19, at Pilot Country Airport in Pasco County, parked in front of a hangar door. The keys were on the floorboard. The driver’s seat was pushed all the way back, too far for Lewis’ feet to reach the pedals. There was no sign of Lewis.

Meanwhile, according to McQueen, more than $200,000 in cashier’s checks made out in his name remained in her safe deposit box. Lewis and she both had keys. No large sums of money were withdrawn from his known accounts. His credit cards have not been used since his disappearance.

It wasn’t until a few days after the van was returned to Easy Street that the sheriff’s office processed it, checking for blood, fingerprints, the typical forensic checklist so much a part of modern-day sleuthing.

Investigators have questioned Carole Lewis and walked around Wildlife on Easy Street so many times that she finally asked them to leave if they had no new questions. Hillsborough Sheriff’s investigators even went to Costa Rica in search of Lewis, after receiving a tip that he was sighted there. It turned out the person who saw him was confused about the dates and had seen Lewis before his disappearance. Lt. Craig Latimer said investigators are convinced Lewis is not in Costa Rica.

 

Dueling Interpretations

As Carole Lewis flows around the big cat compound, she says she believes her husband is dead. She thinks that he crashed an ultralight plane into the Gulf of Mexico, burying his body beneath the waves. Don had been looking at some ultralights that he wanted to take Costa Rica to sell. She had seen some of them and said they looked like they were made out of “popsicle sticks.”

She says she warned him against buying and flying them, but “you couldn’t tell Don anything.”

“I feel like that more than likely he paid a person for it and flew to the Panhandle or the upper part of Georgia,” she says. “He liked flying over the water and he flew low because he didn’t want to be picked up (on radar). He didn’t have a license.”

Carole Lewis says it wasn’t unusual for her husband to rig a plane to fly farther than it was built to fly. Once he loaded the wings of a small plane with gas tanks so he could travel farther. Another time, Lewis was forced to land in the Gulf after his plane ran out of gas. Carol says he climbed from the plane with his briefcase and gun and stood atop the sinking plane until shrimpers rescued him.

No doubt, Lewis was a risk taker. He routinely stuck his face into that of a wild beast that could kill him with a chomp of its incisors. Easy Street volunteer Edwards once saw Lewis stand on a tire and stick a screwdriver into a faulty power box. A jolt of electricity knocked him back about 10 feet. Lewis got up, dusted the seat of his pants, and went on about his business.

But if Lewis bought an ultralight plane and crashed it, why hasn’t the seller come forward?

Investigators say it’s not out of the question that the seller may be afraid to admit to selling Lewis a plane.

Edwards also holds this theory.

“Let’s say you owned a house and built an experimental airplane in your garage. He (Lewis) went out there and climbed into the airplane, took off with it and crashed. Are you going to tell anybody if you had just killed a millionaire even though not through hatred?”

But Lewis’ sometime business partner Wendall Williams doesn’t buy the plane crash theory. He and McQueen believe someone else drove Lewis’ van to the airport because of where it was parked — in front of the hangar door.

“That van was planted there. It was parked in front of a hangar door so it would have to be found the next day when they opened that hangar,” Williams said. “He (Lewis) would always park his van somewhere out of the way so the planes could get out. He knew that because he had planes.”

Williams and Carole Lewis never got along, and since Don Lewis’ disappearance their dislike for one another has intensified. Williams considers Carole an “egomaniac.” Carole considers Williams a leach who cajoled her husband into deals that would benefit Williams. She says Williams always disliked her because she pointed out his questionable business practices to her husband.

But many of Don Lewis’ family and friends have turned bitterly against one another since he disappeared, often in the dispute over his assets. Carole Lewis and Don Lewis’ three daughters and adopted son from a previous marriage exchanged barbs in court over Lewis’ estate. Earlier this year they reached an agreement that allows the adult children control over 10 percent of the estate, while Carole Lewis controls 90 percent.

The once-close friendship between Carole Lewis and McQueen has soured. Legal arguments between the two compose much of the four overflowing probate court files concerning Don Lewis’ estate. Carole Lewis has accused McQueen of theft; McQueen has accused Carole Lewis of libel and slander.

Several of the volunteers and workers at Easy Street have sided with Carole Lewis in the disputes. “If you knew them (McQueen and Williams) the way I know ‘em, you wouldn’t put much on their credibility,” said Farr, who worked for Don Lewis since he was a boy.

But the hissing over Lewis’ money has also led to more serious accusations and implications.

 

Come back for PART THREE tomorrow.

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