TAMPA, Fla. - Since reopening the cold case surrounding Don Lewis' disappearance, Hillsborough County detectives say they have been unable to interview Carole Baskin, the CEO of Big Cat Rescue, or search her animal sanctuary.
Sheriff Chad Chronister reopened the case following the premiere of the popular Netflix documentary, Tiger King, in March 2020. Since then, three detectives have taken over the investigation. They've scoured through federal documents relating to Baskin's ex-husband, interviews, and re-interviewing people – including those who appeared on the show – and even Homeland Security has assisted on any possible tips related to Lewis being in Costa Rica.
Even over a year later, Corporal Moises Garcia said they are still exploring some "avenues," but, since it's an ongoing investigation, couldn't specify further.
"I myself believe this case can be solved. The sheriff has been very committed to this case," he said during a Thursday morning virtual press conference. "If you ask a homicide investigator if he can solve a case, if he tells you, ‘no,’ you should take his badge away. I believe every case we get our hands on could be solved."
Lewis has now been missing for over 20 years.
Cpl. Garcia said they have looked into whether Lewis' body was placed into a septic tank on the Big Cat Rescue property. It was a theory discussed in the first season of Tiger King. He said detectives would be interested in searching the Tampa sanctuary but would need probable cause to obtain a search warrant. At the moment, they have been denied access.
"It was frustrating. I would like to get on that property and look around," Detective Garcia explained, adding that the agency has requested to interview Baskin three times – but was denied through her attorney. "She does a lot of interviews and she does a lot of online interviews with different personalities where she says the sheriff's office has not even approached her. That can be very frustrating when you know you've approached multiple times."
File image of Don Lewis
When asked if he believe Baskin's "silence signaled anything," Garcia responded, "Most missing persons, their family members, wives, spouses, they cooperate with law enforcement. They want to know what happened to their loved one and they cooperate whenever possible."
Kenny Farr, who was Lewis and Baskin's handyman, has also denied interview requests from detectives, Garcia explained. In a previous interview on the new CBS limited series "48 Hours Suspicion," Trish Farr-Payne says she believes her ex-husband, Kenny, may have played a role in Lewis' 1997 disappearance. Farr-Payne alleges in the interview that her ex instructed her not to talk about Lewis after he went missing in the late '90s.
"'Don's gone, and I don't want you talking about him,'" Farr-Payne alleges her ex-husband told her just before Lewis was reported missing.
As far as the Tiger King phenomenon, Garcia described the release of the second season – in addition to the general popularity of the series – as a "double-edged sword."
"It will be helpful. It will get a lot of interest into the case again. The backside of the sword is always the fact that there's a lot of information to be out there again that sometimes we don't want out there. It can also lead to a lot of rumors and innuendos and rabbit holes that we would have to go through," he explained, adding that the latter didn't help the investigation. "The radicals don't help. It takes time to run through them all and get to the bottom of it and when you get to the end of it you realize you've exhausted hours and sometimes days. It's been a rabbit hole that went nowhere."
They've chased down more than 200 different leads, and most of them were useless. Garcia said Chronister has been supportive in solving the cold case.
The sheriff previously said he believes Lewis was killed, and the agency just needs one "credible" lead to solve the case.
"There’s not a week that goes by that we don’t have our hands in this case file."
Tiger King dove into the world of big cat owners during its first season. An entire episode was dedicated to the circumstances involving the disappearance of Baskin's husband. In the documentary, one theory implied that Lewis' body was placed in a meat grinder and fed to the tigers. It's a theory that Baskin disputed. Another was that his body may be under a septic tank at the Big Cat Rescue property.
Following the release of Tiger King 2, Baskin released the following statement:
Season 2, as expected and indicated in the Trailer, continues to do everything they can to falsely convince the viewer that Carole was involved in Don Lewis disappearance. It is primarily nothing more than a rehash of the first season with a few misleading additions.
In 2011, the sheriff's office asked Baskin to take a polygraph. Chronister said she declined after her attorney advised against it, saying she could be arrested even if she passes it. The year before that, Lewis' family provided DNA that was entered into a data system that could alert detectives if he is found.
Anyone with information about Lewis' disappearance is asked to call the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office at 813-247-8200.
FOX News contributed to this report