The popularity of Tiger King has thrust the 1997 disappearance of star Carole Baskin’s husband, Jack “Don” Lewis, back into the spotlight, and now his family is offering a $100,000 (£76,000) reward for information in the case.
“We really need someone to come forward in the case with information,” family spokesman Jack Smith said during a Monday news conference in Tampa, Florida, per NBC affiliate WFLA. “And there’s a lot of people out there that have information but they’re scared to come forward. There’s people with animals — exotic animals — that are scared if they come forward, they’re gonna lose their animals somehow.”
Lewis, who married Baskin in 1991, was last seen leaving his Tampa home on 18 August, 1997. In the Netflix docuseries, Baskin’s nemesis Joe Exotic (real name: Joe Maldonado-Passage) accuses her of being the person behind it. Exotic’s theory is that she then fed Lewis to tigers at her animal sanctuary, Big Cat Rescue.
Baskin has refuted accusations that she had anything to do with Lewis’s disappearance. Shortly after the release of Tiger King, she wrote in a lengthy blog post that Lewis had shown signs of “mental deterioration” in the years before he disappeared. He was declared dead in 2002, and Baskin remarried two years later.
“I never threatened him and I certainly had nothing to do with his disappearance,” Baskin wrote. “When he disappeared, I did everything I could to assist the police. I encouraged them to check out the rumours from Costa Rica, and separately I hired a private investigator.”
Read more: Nicolas Cage to play Joe Exotic
She dismissed the latest development as a “publicity stunt” in a statement to WFLA. She accused Smith of hoping to “bolster his YouTube views.” However, Baskin said she hoped that, “all of the attention from Tiger King and the aftermath will reslt in us finding Don.”
Just after the release of the show, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister asked for new leads in the 23-year-old case. Then, in June, he said he believed Lewis’s will was “100 percent a forgery.”
Three of Lewis’s daughters appeared at the news conference to ask for help ending the mystery.
“We all know by now that he was not a perfect man,” youngest daughter Gale Rathbone said. “But do only the perfect among us deserve justice? We’re asking that anyone with vital information please come forward so that progress can be made on his case.”
The family put up four billboards in the area that read, “Who Murdered Don Lewis?” in the days leading up to the formal announcement.
Four of these new billboards offering a $100,000 reward from the family of Don Lewis are displayed around #Tampa ahead of a press conference Monday. This one is located down the road from the entrance to the Big Cat Rescue. https://t.co/sPk3IxirSp #TigerKing @WFLA pic.twitter.com/W8YrO7WlVv— Justin Schecker (@WFLAJustin) August 8, 2020
They also introduced a lawyer, John M. Phillips, they said is willing to help anyone who comes forward in the case for free.
Phillips is already representing the Lewis family in a related lawsuit he said. They’re suing Baskin, Tiger King subject Kenny Farr and a woman listed as a witness on Lewis’s will, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Instead of money, the family is seeking “equity,” which Phillips described as any information related to the case that could be used in future lawsuits.
“Generally you announce a $150 million lawsuit and how we’re going to get justice,” Phillips said. “And we are going to do all of that, in time. But our office wants to invite reason, to invite civil conversation where it can be had.”