MYSTERIOUS MILLIONAIRE STILL MISSING (source)
Some days, Carole Lewis sits by her house and sees her husband coming home, driving his van into the yard. Then after a second, she realizes he's gone.
Don Lewis, a self-made millionaire known for his exotic cat sanctuary, left Aug. 18, 1997 and never returned. The next day, authorities found his van at a private Pasco County airport, where he was known to buy planes with cash.
A year later, Lewis' disappearance has left his family at odds over control of his fortune, his lions and tigers missing his touch and investigators befuddled.
The mystery has, predictably, led to litigation, suspicions and some interest from national news media like People magazine and NBC's Dateline.
"The investigation has not given us a direction on where to look for clues," said Hillsborough Sheriff's Sgt. John Marsicano, who flew to Costa Rica looking for Lewis last year.
"I wish we had a whole lot more," he said. "We have looked in every conceivable direction."
One of the last directions they've pointed is Wildlife on Easy Street, where Carole Lewis, 37, still lives and cares for the couple's lions, tigers and leopards. Last fall, detectives asked her to take a polygraph test, but on the advice of attorney Ron Cacciatore, she declined.
If it were up to her, Lewis said, she would let detectives search the wildlife sanctuary's 40 acres, and even inspect the meat freezers.
"I would rather be cooperative, but all the legal advice is against it," she said.
Her attorney, Cacciatore, declined to comment.
Marsicano wouldn't talk about polygraphs, but emphasized detectives have ruled nothing out. "We cannot eliminate anyone," he said.
In the beginning, Don Lewis seemed as likely a suspect as anyone in his own disappearance. Some people who knew him thought the eccentric animal lover might have decided to just get away from things for awhile. But authorities don't put much weight on that theory any more.
Two months before Lewis, then 60, disappeared, he filed a domestic violence injunction against his wife. He told a Hillsborough Circuit judge that she threatened to kill him, but the judge did not take the threat seriously and dismissed it.
Carole Lewis says she never seriously fought with her husband, even though they did argue. Don Lewis was not serious about divorcing her, as he told his daughters, Carole Lewis said.
In the days before Lewis was gone, he was busy making business plans. He bought a plane ticket to Costa Rica, where Lewis owns a 200-acre park. He was loading equipment on a truck destined for Miami, Marsicano said.
"This was a man that was planning on doing some of these things," Marisicano said.
By most accounts, Lewis was odd: He was worth more than $6- million, but he sometimes looked for food in trash bins. He could outsmart investors, but never earned a college degree. He spent thousands of dollars starting Wildlife on Easy Street, a sanctuary for exotic lions, tigers and leopards at the end of a dirt road near the planned Citrus Park Town Center mall. He had dealings and connections in Costa Rica.
Could Lewis have run off?
"It is possible," Marsicano said. "Does it look from an investigative standpoint, that he would do that? It doesn't look like that."
Lewis' grown children suspect someone took him or left him for dead.
"None of this is like my father," said Lynda Sanchez, Lewis' daughter. "Yes, he goes off on business trips, but he never went 24 hours without calling in."
She wonders why Carole Lewis will not take a polygraph test.
"Every one of us . . . have volunteered to take a lie detector test," Sanchez said. "Carole is the only one that will not take one." Detectives have not given the children polygraph tests, Sanchez said.
In a civil court action, she and Lewis' other children have challenged Carole Lewis' control of their father's fortune. They want a greater say in its management and a larger portion of his assets, according to court records.
In September, a Hillsborough Circuit judge placed Lewis' assets in a conservatorship controlled by Carole Lewis and an outside money manager.
Carole Lewis wanted the court to remove all but about $1- million dollars of Lewis' fortune from the conservatorship's oversight. The conservatorship has wrecked her finances and piled up thousands in attorney's fees, she said.
"It's just been a nightmare," Carole Lewis said. "The real estate business has suffered." Don Lewis made much of his fortune buying and selling property. "I've spent $150,000 in legal fees battling stupid things," she said.
In court papers, she accused Lewis' longtime business assistant, Ann McQueen, of stealing money and putting property under her name. She also said McQueen took out a life insurance policy on Lewis months before he disappeared.
McQueen said Lewis, with whom she worked for 18 years, told her to take out the policy, which named her as one of the beneficiaries. It was unclear last week whether any claim had been made, or paid, on the policy. He also instructed her to transfer property to different names. McQueen said.
"Carole has gone after my jugular vein," McQueen said. "She is bound and determined to bury me alive."
McQueen said she too, dreams that Don Lewis is alive.
"I still get up in the middle of the night and go to the front porch to see if he is walking up the driveway," said McQueen, who lives in eas Tampa. "I still cry."
At the wildlife sanctuary where Don and Carol lived, Carole Lewis said she can't imagine living with another man.
"I loved Don since I was 19," she said. "He was my first love, my only love."
Carole has computerized Lewis' business records, something Lewis would have never done. (He kept his papers in a mess only he understood.) Now her mother and father work with her at the sanctuary.
She removed the mountains of junk Lewis collected. She also added cages with new cats, boosted the sanctuary's number of volunteers and now offers bed-and-breakfast-style accommodations.
National magazines and TV shows have taken note. People magazine interviewed with her and a sheriff's detective about Wildlife on Easy Street. And a producer from Dateline was scheduled to visit Tampa this weekend to film a story.
Financially, Lewis' absence "is a mixed bag," Carole Lewis said. "I spent so much of my time getting him out of trouble."
Even so, Carole Lewis can't negotiate in the business as well as her husband could, though she has taken classes to learn.
Three times since Lewis disappeared, sheriff's detectives have called his wife when they've found unidentified bodies. In June, a body washed up from the Gulf of Mexico that looked, at first, like it might be Lewis'.
"It's horrible, it's horrible," she said. "Every time I wonder if this is the end of being able to hope."
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06-26-2020 - 6:06 PM
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