Like millions of others, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister was mesmerized by “Tiger King.”
The stranger-than-fiction Netflix docuseries centers around roadside zookeeper Joseph Maldonado-Passage, a k a “Joe Exotic,” and his homicidal vendetta against the Tampa, Fla., animal activist and sanctuary owner Carole Baskin.
But Chronister told The Post his interest was especially piqued by the episode detailing the mysterious disappearance of Baskin’s second husband, multimillionaire Jack “Don” Lewis.
Back in 1997, when Lewis vanished, Chronister was a narcotics investigator in Hillsborough County and remembered the incident well. Now, as the county sheriff, he feels the time is right to dive back into the case. This week, he announced that he’s looking for new leads in the case.
“I thought we should take advantage of the public’s fascination and glimmer any type of evidence we can get,” he told The Post.
Lewis disappeared in August 1997 and the investigation mostly dried up, he said.
“The last thing we did was ask Carole to take a polygraph in 2011 for reasons that I don’t know,” the sheriff said, emphasizing that Baskin was never a suspect or even a person of interest. “She declined. It would not vindicate her and would not stop us from pursuing criminal charges against her at a later date.”
At the time of his disappearance, Lewis — who would now be 81 — was worth $5 to $7 million, via real estate and used cars, Chronister said.
“He was one person with an extremely complicated life and an extremely complex marriage,” he said.
It was offbeat out of the gate. Don and Carole met late one night in 1980, when, as Baskin has explained, she was walking down Nebraska Avenue in Tampa, crying over a fight with her then-husband. She wound up getting into Lewis’ car, that of a married stranger. She was 19. He was 40. They slept together that night.
Lewis, a father of four, eventually left his wife for Baskin in 1990. She split from her husband. They married one year later, began buying bobcats in 1992 and launched their animal sanctuary, Big Cat Rescue, that same year. But by 1997, things had turned rocky.
“He didn’t want Carole spending so much of his money on the sanctuary,” said Chronister.
There were some parts of the documentary Chronister was skeptical of: “[It] was spun for entertainment purposes,” he says.
For example, the show maintains that Lewis sought a domestic violence injunction against his wife. But “we never found [the application],” said Chronister. “Maybe it was never filed.”
One thing investigators in the case did uncover was that Lewis had two different passports, both issued in Costa Rica — despite him being an American citizen. Having two passports issued in the same country “could make sure your travel goes untraced,” he said.
Chronister maintained that Lewis had unsavory predilections. “I heard he had an extreme fondness for prostitutes,” said the sheriff. “Several sources told detectives that Don would wrap $30,000 in clothing, take it to Costa Rica, and give the cash and clothing to young girls as payment for sex. Some parents of the young girls found out and were extremely upset.”
In fact, Lewis had a home in Costa Rica and business partners there, whom Chronister believes were “the equivalent of the mafia . . . and that Lewis was loaning them money.”
On August 18, 1997, Baskin called police and reported her husband missing. One day later, Lewis’ van was found in the parking lot of nearby Pilot Country Airport (out of which private planes depart). His briefcase and keys were in the vehicle.
Lewis had announced an upcoming trip to Costa Rica, but Chronister does not believe he flew out that day. “There is no passenger manifest showing [him departing],” said Chronister. “Neither of his two passports were flagged.” Investigators at the time found that “no one down in Costa Rica had seen him for six months.”
Nor is there a cash trail: “There were no withdrawals or money moved prior to his departure. He left behind his children, his home, his girlfriends. Follow the money and you can usually solve the crime. That was not the case here.”
For five years, Lewis was considered a missing person — with his fortune held in limbo. At that point, though, a civil judge deemed him deceased. One day later, Baskin produced a will with a clause that granted her his money if he were to go MIA.
“Who in the world anticipates disappearance?” Lewis’ lawyer asks in the documentary.
Chronister shares the sentiment: “You have a will that I think is extremely suspicious,” he told The Post.
But a court upheld the will. “A woman who worked for Carole said she witnessed the signing. Then she recanted. She said that, as an employee, she felt pressured. Did she do it to prove her allegiance? Or did she recant because she got fired and now she doesn’t want Carole to have the money?”
In the documentary, Lewis’ ex-wife and two daughters claim to have received only 10 percent of his fortune.
As for tips that could solve the mystery of Jack “Don” Lewis, Chronister said he is receiving six or so a day — most of which are speculative. When asked to recount the craziest, the sheriff demurred.
“I hate to call any of them crazy,” he said. “These people led such complicated lives that any lead could be valuable.”