TAMPA, Fla. — The lead detective on the infamous 1997 disappearance of Tampa millionaire Don Lewis said he still believes the case can be solved — but he feels that way about every case.
“If you ask a homicide investigator, can you solve a case and they say no, you should take his badge away,” Cpl. Moises Garcia said Thursday. “We continue to push hard on this case. ... We still have some avenues. Not a week goes by that we don’t have our hand in this case.”
At a news conference held over Zoom, Garcia explained how the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has re-investigated the case in the 18 months since Netflix’s wildly popular "Tiger King" documentary made Lewis a household name.
Since March 2020, the sheriff’s office interviewed more than 50 people. Investigators have collected DNA swabs from Lewis’ daughters. And they have visited every known property that Lewis owned in Hillsborough County, Garcia said, except for the wildlife sanctuary where he lived with his wife, Carole Baskin.
Lewis owned dozens of properties in Hillsborough County and kept a bevy of exotic cats at his home in Citrus Park. He disappeared without a trace just before a scheduled trip to Costa Rica. Baskin remarried and still operates the nonprofit Big Cat Rescue. All featured prominently in "Tiger King."
Garcia described being denied access to the Big Cat Rescue property as “frustrating.”
He also said only two people have refused to be interviewed by detectives: Kenny Farr, who worked for Lewis before his disappearance, and Baskin, who through her lawyer has declined to speak to sheriff’s investigators on three occasions since "Tiger King."
“Most missing persons’ family members, wives, spouses, they cooperate with law enforcement,” Garcia said. “They want to know what happened to their loved one and they cooperate wherever possible.”
Asked if Baskin is a suspect, Garcia said the only person who is not a suspect is himself. “Everybody else is a possibility,” he said, describing Baskin as a “high-profile person of interest.”
Investigators looked at all flight records and passport entries in and out of the country related to Lewis, Garcia said, and the Department of Homeland Security assisted through its Panama office in “running down leads in Costa Rica.”
A University of South Florida anthropologist created an age progression image of Lewis that investigators used in Costa Rica.
Investigators followed up on more than 200 tips the sheriff’s office received after "Tiger King," Garcia said, adding that “a large amount of those are virtually useless.” Investigators have also reviewed 400 of Baskins’ diary entries.
Because it remains an open investigation, Garcia would not comment on a Homeland Security document revealed in "Tiger King 2," which states that the agency believed Lewis was alive in Costa Rica after he was reported missing, and that he was involved in illegal wildlife trafficking. The Tampa Bay Times has not independently verified that document.
Anything in "Tiger King" or elsewhere suggesting Lewis was alive in Costa Rica is, “all noise,” John C. Dominick, a former sheriff’s investigator on the case, told the Times on Wednesday.
After looking at all the available evidence, Dominick said he’s absolutely convinced that Lewis never made it out of Tampa.
Dominick, who retired from the Rochester, New York, police department as a homicide detective and later worked as an investigator for the district attorney there, was one of two civilian investigators hired by the Hillsborough sheriff’s office this year to help with cold cases. He left the job after about six months, he said, for personal reasons.
“It’s definitely a better case than it was 18 months ago,” Dominick said of the investigation. “But certain elements are missing.”
Dominick declined to get into specifics of what’s lacking but said it takes physical evidence and eyewitness testimony to build a case that can be prosecuted.
Both Dominick and Garcia said they are fully aware of the internet sleuths who’ve been posting theories online.
“There’s nothing on the internet we aren’t aware of and haven’t already checked out,” Dominick said. “Maybe some of these internet sleuths have it right — and they have pretty much the same stuff that the police have — but there’s some other stuff out there that is just crazy, made up B.S.”
Now, Dominick said, it’s going to take someone with firsthand knowledge of what happened. “I strongly believe from what I know that those people are out there,” he said. “They need to come forward.”
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