Published March 25-31, 1999
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.
By Lynn Waddell
Down a bumpy shaded dirt road called Easy Street, past a half dozen trailers, behind an eight-foot chain-link fence, lurks the legacy of Don Lewis. More than 200 tigers, lynx, bobcats, panthers, caracals and leopards slink around in shaded mesh pens, looking as cuddly as house cats and eating 10 times as much. Occasionally, one will dine inside the adjacent small ranch-style home of their master, Carole Lewis, Don’s wife.
Dressed in a sheer leopard print blouse with matching tank and knee-length leggings, the tall blonde Carole Lewis talks about the disappearance of her husband as she glides among the kitty compounds. His story is frequently interrupted with introductions to the big cats she sweetly addresses as “baby” and “my boy.” She gives the cats’ history, and occasionally pets one. She does it keeping her hands flat to the mesh fence, warning that they will bite.
Carole and Don Lewis started this refuge in 1992 after buying 56 bobcats to save them from a furrier’s scalpel. Today, Wildlife on Easy Street is a nonprofit attraction with more than 100 volunteers. All that’s missing is Don Lewis, who still finances most of it.
A self-made millionaire who cultivated eccentricities, Don Lewis remains as mysterious in his absence as he did when he was around. Did he fatally crash into the sea? Was he murdered? Or did he just get the hell out of Dodge? The scenarios seem equally plausible, depending on whom you talk to.
An adventurous daredevil, Lewis thought nothing of flying off in a small airplane he knew little about. He would buy an ultralight plane on the spot if the owner could prove it would leave the ground, and then Lewis would fly it home. But he was a better negotiator than a pilot; he had crashed three planes, one into the Gulf of Mexico. He lost his pilot’s license as a result of flying dangerously.
No shortage of theories
A cut-throat businessman, a landlord with a history of tenant complaints, an aggressive ladies’ man, he frequently carried a lot of cash, often as much as $30,000. Lewis was also a man many people had a motive to feed to the lions. The accusation of foul play hovers in the air of every conversation among those who knew him. Finger pointing is rampant. But few are willing to accuse anyone outright of the crime. Instead the suspects are implied so strongly that even a neutered housecat could probably pick them out of a lineup.
Prior to a settlement regarding Don Lewis’ estate, two of his children spoke to People Magazine and suggested their father was fed his exotic cats. They could not be reached for comment for this article. Their attorney did not return phone calls.
Elizabeth Anne McQueen, a squatty direct woman with long acrylic nails, was Don Lewis’ business assistant for 18 years. She and her new boss, Wendall Williams, a sometimes business partner of Lewis, have appeared on the television show “Hard Copy,” insinuating that someone helped Lewis disappear. Both told the Planet that they believe Lewis was killed by “someone close to him.” Williams goes even further: “I don’t think she (Carole Lewis) would think it gruesome to put him in a meat grinder, grind him up and feed him to the cats. I’m just not sure she could do it physically by herself.”
Two months before Lewis’ disappearance he filed an injunction seeking to have Carole removed from their home, claiming she threatened to kill him. “She ordered me out of the house or she would kill me and if I came back she would kill me (She has a 45 revolver and she took my 357 and hid it)” Lewis wrote in his injunction request.
But several volunteers on Easy Street find it hard to believe that Carole Lewis could have murdered a man she so loved. “I know Carole is such a nice person,” Sandy Wittkopp, a housekeeper and volunteer, said. “She could never have done what they are saying. They were madly in love with each other.”
Richard Reed, a Tampa mortgage broker and former volunteer at Easy Street, said he thinks Don Lewis was murdered. When questioned about who he believed killed Lewis, he replied “No comment.”
Carole Lewis also has a long list suspects of those who may have been involved in her husband’s disappearance. And because McQueen and Williams are publicly denouncing her, she questions their involvement.
“She (McQueen) and Wendall Williams have made a career out of trying to make the public, the police and everybody else think that I’ve done something to Don,” Carole Lewis said. “And if anybody knows better in this entire world it is her. So, I can only assume the reason for putting so much attention or trying to focus so much attention on me is to take the focus off what their part in this was.”
There’s also a chance Don Lewis purposely flew away and didn’t come back. Some friends speculate he’s somewhere laughing at the chaos he left behind. After all, Lewis labored at being an enigma. Worth upwards of $6 million, Lewis bought his clothes at yard sales and thrift stores. He told people he couldn’t read, while others say they saw him read. He even told his wife Carole that his name was Bob Martin when they first met. It took her nearly three years to learn who he really was.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office is still investigating Lewis’ disappearance. The case is classified as missing with suspicious circumstances. Because it’s an open case, the investigators refuse to share their theories. But from a compilation of other, often contradictory reports, calling his disappearance suspicious is an understatement.
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.
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.
Plenty of motives
Carole Lewis’ list of suspects grows with each interview. Initially, she named McQueen, Williams and a business associate named Joe Ryan as people who may have had motive to aid in Lewis’ disappearance, or whom she considered his “enemies.” In a subsequent interview, she also named a German man in Costa Rica whom she claims threatened to kill her husband. A couple of days after the second interview she e-mailed the Planet her notes to the police from October 21, 1997, which cast aspersions on yet another person.
According to a court document filed by McQueen, about three months after Lewis’s disappearance Carole Lewis wrote in her newsletter Cat-Tales that McQueen had taken out a life insurance policy on Don Lewis and that McQueen had transferred $600,000 of Lewis’ accounts to her name.
McQueen has officially denied those accusations and called them libelous. The only life insurance policy noted in the settlement between Carole Lewis and Lewis’ adult children is for $1.25 million. It gives $400,000 to his children, $250,000 to Carole Lewis, $200,000 to McQueen and the remaining to potential claimants and Wildlife on Easy Street.
McQueen says that she put property in her name at Don Lewis’ request. Lewis was sneaky and hated to pay taxes; he often put property in other people’s names who he trusted, she said. No charges have been filed with the sheriff’s office against McQueen for any impropriety in Lewis’ financial affairs.
Carole Lewis said her husband also had about $200,000 in gold coins that disappeared with him. Williams knew about this money, she said. The seat of Lewis’ van being pushed so far back makes her wonder if Williams, a tall man, had parked it at the airport.
But McQueen said most of the gold was spent long before Don Lewis’ disappearance. About $100,000 of it was given to his first wife of 34 years, Gladys Cross, in a divorce settlement in 1996. Much of the gold was used in 1991 to settle a threatened legal dispute with a man accusing Lewis of usury, charging illegal interest on a loan.
But McQueen says Williams had nothing to gain. His reliance on Don Lewis is exactly why he wouldn’t have killed him, she said. “Don was Wendall’s gravy train.”
Another person Carole Lewis names as having a beef with her husband is Joe Ryan. And court documents show he had plenty of reasons to be angry with Don Lewis.
Lewis sold an option on a piece of land at 11509 Sligh Ave. in Seffner to Ryan for $50,600. Ryan in turn agreed to sell the land to Lazy Days for $131,000. Carole Lewis says that Ryan later decided he wanted to ask more but couldn’t because he had already signed an agreement with Lazy Days. To get around it, he asked Don Lewis to claim his option void, which would mean he didn’t own the property and thus could not sell it, she said.
Ryan, however, argues in his lawsuit against Lewis’ estate that the greedy guy was Lewis.
Lewis ultimately let Ryan out of the option, but sold the property to a Costa Rican company, Corporación Witco, which Lewis owned. Ryan claims in his lawsuit against Lewis that that company in turn sold it to Lazy Days for $225,000.
Ryan in his lawsuit claims Lewis promised to give him everything over the original $50,000 sales price and has a letter from Lewis’ to prove it. Lazy Days is still suing Ryan for damages and legal costs
Ryan couldn’t be reached for comment. His attorney, Neil Polster, when told that Carole Lewis saw Ryan as a potential threat to her husband, said: “That’s stupid. I wager that she didn’t know what he was doing less than 1 percent of the time. She may be in good faith saying that, but she just doesn’t know.”
Lazy Days General Counsel Terryn Bennett said Ryan and Lewis were perfectly capable of working together. And she said she found it hard to believe anyone would kill anyone over a small piece of land in Seffner. “There wasn’t anything cloak and dagger about it.”
Carole Lewis, however, is the person who had the most to gain financially from Lewis’ disappearance.
In her 1994 journal, Carole Lewis said her husband only gave her $518 a week. The legal stipulation with his adult children now gives her $100,000 a year on top of living expenses, insurance and a vehicle.
In the long term, if Lewis fails to resurface, Carole Lewis stands to inherit almost all of his $6 million estate. After his disappearance she produced Lewis’ signed and notarized will leaving her everything but a handful of properties that will go to his adult children.
The recent settlement gives Carole Lewis control over what she stands to inherit. However, the court must approve any transaction more than $125,000. Prior to this settlement, Carole Lewis acted as co-conservator along with a court-appointed conservator over those properties and could independently make transactions up to $75,000.
Carole Lewis’ control over the estate in her husband’s absence was made possible by a durable power of attorney that she filed two weeks after his disappearance. Dated November 21, 1996, it gave her unusually broad powers of control over his estate. She drafted it, Don Lewis signed it, and it had been notarized nine months prior to his disappearance.
Carole Lewis has argued on more than one occasion in the legal wrangling over her husband’s estate that because “there is no evidence that Don Lewis is deceased” that putting his estate under the court’s control is premature.
Once the grantor of a power of attorney is dead, the document becomes void. Their assets then go into probate court.
The most glaring oddity of the durable power of attorney document is the use of the word “disappearance.” It states: “This durable family power of attorney shall not be affected by any disability or disappearance of the principal except as provided by statute and shall be exercisable from this date.”
Tampa attorney Bill Platt, who is experienced in probate work, says he’s never seen that language used in a durable power of attorney.
Carole Lewis told sheriff’s investigators that she included the word because Don was always disappearing, spontaneously taking shopping trips for exotic cats, planes and property.
She told the Planet the word “disappearance” was specifically added because she and Don feared that he might disappear in Costa Rica.
“We changed it when he started going to Costa Rica because we had read an article down there about some people who had disappeared,” Carole Lewis said. “We realized there was nothing in the documents we had that would have protected me in that sort of an event. So that was why it was in. I just expected if he would disappear, he would have disappeared in Costa Rica, and never dreamed it would happen here.”
Carole says it wasn’t unusual for her to draw up legal documents to save money. “Don hated using attorneys,” she says. “When I first started working for him in 1984 it was because he was spending $60,000 in attorney’s fees. … Those were things I could do for free.”
Carole says she had nothing to gain from Don’s disappearance. “From a financial standpoint, if Don were to die, then I stood to gain all that we had together. For Don to be simply missing I stood the risk of being in exactly the position I am in, which is to be under suspicion, and not in control of our affairs, and to watch greed and malice destroy through the ensuing legal battles all that we worked for. If I had done something to Don for my own gain, I would have to leave a body in plain sight, and an ironclad trail to anything or anyone but myself, for me to gain anything.”
Her cluttered house is no bigger or more luxurious than a doublewide mobile home. She doesn’t appear to be living in luxury since her husband disappeared. The center room of her home is a cat pen that smells strongly of cat urine, and she sleeps with a bobcat in her bed.
Even though Don Lewis was 24 years her senior and no Brad Pitt, his money was not a part of her initial attraction to him, according to Carole Lewis’ 1994 journal. The journal was given to the Planet by McQueen, who says a former volunteer fished the handwritten diary out of the trash. But Carole says several of her journals were stolen and that the volunteer has been trying to sell them to tabloid television shows.
In the 1994 journal Carole describes the highs and lows of being married to an eccentric, frugal man with an irrational temper. But even when he blasted her over something as minor as buying cable TV for her daughter, she exasperatingly proclaimed her love for him.
She portrays herself as a victim of a volatile love that was unconventional from the start.
She was 19 when she met him. He was 43. She had had a fight with her then-husband, Mike Murdock, threw a potato at him and ran from their house barefoot onto 48th Street in Tampa. He yelled at her as she walked up to Sligh Avenue and 56th Street in Tampa. She had no money or gun, she wrote, but kept walking.
She spotted her husband looking for her, driving around the block. She ducked down alleys and behind houses to avoid him.
Meanwhile, another driver kept circling. The wild-eyed man inside frightened her, so she ducked into a watermelon vendor’s tent at 56th Street and Hillsborough Avenue. Later, as she left a railroad overpass, the driver pulled over and asked her if she needed a ride. “No,” she said, and kept walking.
He circled the block and came back. When he pulled over she could see a handgun on the passenger seat. He rolled down the window. He said he had just fought with his wife and needed an ear. He offered to let her hold a loaded gun on him while he talked.
For reasons she still can’t explain, Carole Murdock got into the car.
He told her his name was Bob Martin. He described himself as a poor farm boy who worked for a cruel, money-grubbing man named Don Lewis. He had a suitcase of penny wrappers stuffed with rolled-up $100 bills that ostensibly belonged to his boss.
He asked her to go to New Orleans with him. She told him she had a 7-month-old daughter she couldn’t leave. They settled for the beach instead and later a pay-by-the-hour motel.
He promised he wouldn’t try anything. Once in their motel room, he barricaded the door, brushed his teeth and got ready for bed. She joined him, wearing his baggy pajamas. They didn’t have sex, which endeared him to her all the more; “No one had ever cared about me, without wanting something in return,” she wrote in her journal.
Don and Carole continued seeing each other even though they were both married. It was nearly three years before Carole called his office and got someone who didn’t know who Bob Martin was. She described him, and the worker told her, “Why, that’s Don Lewis.”
Although Carole Lewis said she and Don grew closer and she assisted him with some real estate deals, McQueen said Carole wasn’t the only other woman in Don’s life.
She rattled off the names of six other women and added there was “a honey in Costa Rica.”
Lewis even had illegitimate children with some of his lovers, according to McQueen and Susan Aronoff, an Easy Street volunteer and friend of Carole’s.
“He had more kids than he knew,” Aronoff said. “He acknowledged them, but he didn’t support them. Some of the people he had affairs with had more than one child each with him.”
Back when Lewis was more into trucking, he had trailers and campers on the lot that often doubled for love nests, she said. McQueen recalled seeing Lewis separately take three girlfriends back to a camper in one day.
“I could never see what women saw in him,” McQueen says. “He walks funny. His teeth are crooked, and he has almost no hair.”
But what he lacked in looks, Lewis made up for in charm and courage.
“I used to listen to him schmooze women, and he was amazing,” McQueen says. “There wasn’t a woman in the world that he talked to that he didn’t try to get into her pants.”
After 34 years of marriage, his wife Gladys decided to move on. She divorced him in 1990, and Lewis married Carole Stairs (her maiden name) in 1991.
But Don Lewis’ womanizing didn’t stop.
One of the women he hit on was Susan Aronoff, who now peddles long distance phone service. Proceeds go to Wildlife on Easy Street.
“Don was very subtle about it for a very long time,” said Aronoff, whose van license plate reads “LIONLDY.”
“He’s the kind of person so unattractive to me. You wonder what the hell do women see in this man. … Don always knew the right thing to say to a woman. Don knew how to make you feel like a queen. He would spoil the woman to the point she would sleep with him. He knew how to look into people for their strengths and weaknesses, exactly how to manipulate you for one reason or another. He always knew what vein to cut.”
Although Don Lewis continued to prowl, infidelity doesn’t appear to be the source of his marital problems. Witness accounts and Carole’s journal show the couple’s strife revolving around Wildlife on Easy Street. Carole often accused Don of mishandling the cats and complained that he was junking the place up with his bargain purchases.
Lewis, a businessman to the core, may have loved the big cats, but not so much that he wouldn’t sell some of them.
“He didn’t have a hard time selling them or giving them away,” Aronoff said. “But some of them were his babies. The ones that were his babies were his forever. If they represented a dollar sign, yes, they were gone.”
Carole Lewis, on the other hand, views all the cats as her children.
Williams said the differing views prompted fights, especially before Lewis disappeared; he was planning on taking 23 cats with him to Costa Rica. She didn’t want him to take any of them.
McQueen said at the time Carole Lewis told her that Don was so mad that he threatened to kill every cat there by feeding them anti-freeze.
Tensions about the exotic pets began long before that, according to Carole’s 1994 journal.
She wrote of July 9, 1994: “We have over 60 cats now and he spends 11-24 hours a month, calling long distance, trying to buy more cats, but he doesn’t want to build pens for them and crowds them together (tonight a Cougar killed a house cat) or he puts them in unfinished pens (without consulting me) and they escape (like last night, when a Bobcat and a Canadian Lynx got out and took three of us several tense hours to recapture). He had let 10 exotics in that pen within 8 hours of me telling him it was not safe. Then rather than finish the pen he decided to have all the workers spend all day Friday getting a load of personal effects loaded into vans and trailers for his grandson to have a yard sale, which would have seemed like a family thing to do, except that the stuff isn’t his. He bid on it through the U.S. Bankruptcy Court and agreed to store it for them. He doesn’t have any idea if the owner will redeem the property, or if someone else will bid higher. When I reminded him of this he just said I’m only selling part of his stuff. Today he spent at Tampa Machinery Auction, buying more junk, although we are under citation by the county to clean up his “dumping site” and remove all inoperative vehicles (which is most of them). One car is completely engulfed in a hornets nest. How long since he’s even seen whatever it used to be, that he just had to have.”
Two months before Don Lewis vanished, the couple had such a disagreement over his collection of equipment that he filed a petition for injunction for protection against domestic violence.
“This is the second time Carole has got angry enouf (sic) to threaton (sic) to kill me,” Don Lewis wrote in the petition.
On the petition’s questionnaire asking to indicate situations he had experienced, Lewis placed three “x’s” by “respondent has ready access to a firearm.” He also checked that he had received verbal threats and suffered emotional distress.
The Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge denied Lewis’ request, the reason: “No immediate threat to do violence.” (The word immediate was underlined in the court document.)
Don Lewis wrote on the injunction request that while he was away Carole gave two junk men permission to remove trucks and equipment stored on their property. Lewis was holding the equipment as collateral for a $17,000 loan to Wendall Williams. Lewis said Williams had to call the sheriff to prevent the men from taking the equipment.
Carole Lewis said, “I never threatened to kill him. The worst thing I ever did was threaten to report him to the IRS.”
She admits that Don Lewis’ collection of stuff around their house was getting on her nerves, but claims he was mentally unbalanced.
“He always did that. But originally, he brought home things that were useful,” she said. “Then he started bringing home things like the cardboard boxes of unwanted junk leftover after garage sales.”
Carole Lewis claims she became concerned that her husband was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He would call her and not know where he was, she said. She insisted that he get a physical and an MRI. The test results showed no signs of Alzheimer’s, but Lewis was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she said.
But even that’s disputed. McQueen said she set up the physical and Lewis was given a complete clean bill of health.
Today about all that remains of Lewis’ junk pile is an old blue wooden boat with the words “Das Boot” spray painted in neon on its side. Many of the cats have their own pens now, and they have soil underneath their feet instead of slabs of concrete as they did before.
Wildlife on Easy Street has ironically benefited from the publicity of Don Lewis’ disappearance. Its slick Web site is bannered by “As seen on Dateline NBC and as featured in People Magazine.” Outside donations have climbed from $32,000 in 1996 to $176,000 in 1998. Lewis’ contribution has also increased from $154,000 in 1996 to $222,000 in 1998. The operation’s overall budget has climbed from $186,000 to $398,000 since Lewis disappeared.
But the improvements on Easy Street may have nothing to do with Lewis’ disappearance. Carole Lewis says it hurts to have people think she would have done anything to her husband. The accusations about feeding him to the cats she finds impractical; the exotic cats won’t just eat anything, she said. They feast on chicken.
Susan Aronoff gets huffy at insinuations that Carole Lewis fed her husband to the wild cats.
“Anything a tiger eats comes out,” Aronoff said. “Human bones are going to show no matter what. (The accusation that she fed him to the cats) opens it up to every trash television show wanting to come out and film these tigers. The person who had most to lose would have been Carole. If it were Carole she’s too smart to do it that way. She has so many people to contend with.”
By law Don Lewis cannot be declared dead until his body is found or five years pass. Because of that, everything he owned is held in probate, limiting what Carole can do with it.
Aronoff believes that’s just what Don wanted. She’s one of the few who believe he is still alive, playing a contemptible prank on his family.
“I believe with all my heart that he will show up,” she said.
Carole Lewis and Aronoff say he considered his children traitors for siding with his first wife in a money dispute in 1996.
“I think he’s doing it to see the reaction to his children,” Aronoff said. “He’s very spiteful. They went right for the money. They did exactly what he disinherited them for in the first place,”
The idea that Lewis could be murdered strikes Aronoff as odd, for Lewis was always armed, she said.
Many others who knew Don Lewis have no doubt he was crafty enough to pull off a disappearing act. After all, he made millions by his wits alone.
“I could see him somewhere thinking this is the funniest thing he ever saw,” says Lazy Days attorney Bennett. “He always saw it as his best advantage that nobody knew better about him. I mean here was a guy that you really can’t even answer whether he could read or not.”
Carole Lewis says her husband was functionally illiterate. McQueen says not only could Don Lewis read, but that he had caught flaws in contracts. Several volunteers say he told them he quit school after sixth or seventh grade, but Pasco County school records show he graduated from high school a year ahead of schedule in 1955 from Pasco High School.
Williams says he believes Lewis is capable of disappearing without a trace, he just doesn’t think he would leave $200,000 in the bank.
“Don didn’t have much money until the last 10 or 15 years,” Williams said. “He always lived like he didn’t have any, but he would have died fighting for it. The problem is who helped him disappear didn’t know he had that money.”
McQueen also can’t believe Lewis would have left the money in the bank. “No sane person would leave $200,000,” she said.
But Lewis’ extreme paranoia leads Aronoff to believe he had other money hidden.
“Don might not keep money in the bank. He was the type who buried it in the ground. He’s gone somewhere with a large sum of money. And he’s the kind of person who will turn the mole hill into a mountain. People with all this sensationalism on their brains will be disappointed when Don comes walking home.”
The major players
Carole Lewis — Don Lewis’ second wife, who was married to him at the time of his disappearance.
Elizabeth Ann McQueen — Don’s business assistant for 18 years
Wendall Williams — Don’s sometimes business partner
Joe Ryan — A business associate who was suing Don at the time of his disappearance.
Vokker — A mysterious German man who allegedly worked for Don in Costa Rica and had reportedly taken out a contract on Don’s life.
Gladys Cross — Don’s first wife of 34 years
Richard Reed, Doug Edwards, Kellie Dorn, Ken Farr, Sandy Wittkopp and Susan Aronoff — Volunteers at Wildlife on Easy Street, the exotic animal attraction owned by Don and Carole Lewis —