The judge who presided over the probate case in the disappearance of Carole Baskin’s ex-husband Don Lewis has said Baskin’s ‘strange’ behavior was ‘not consistent’ with that of a wife whose husband had vanished weeks earlier.
Judge Suzy Sexton was a Florida circuit court judge in the state’s 13th Judicial Circuit in 1997, when businessman Lewis vanished without trace in mysterious circumstances.
In an exclusive interview with DailyMailTV, the judge described Baskin’s behavior as very ‘matter of fact’ and ’emotionless’ when the big cat rights activist came into court.
She attended the first probate hearing just two weeks after her husband disappeared.
Judge Sexton also revealed that the family of Jack Donald Lewis, tried to paint Baskin in a ‘bad light’, alleging that she was a prostitute when she and Lewis met.
Judge Suzy Sexton was a Florida circuit court judge in 1997, when Carole Baskin’s husband Don Lewis suspiciously vanished without a trace
In an exclusive interview with DailyMailTV, Judge Sexton described Baskin’s behavior as very ‘matter of fact’ and ’emotionless’ after the disappearance of her husband Don Lewis
When asked for comment by DailyMail.com, Baskin said we had our ‘facts’ wrong and referred us to a lengthy online rebuttal she has posted on her Big Cat Rescue website.
She insists she did not meet Don Lewis on Nebraska Avenue in Tampa in 1981, it was in fact Hillsborough Avenue, which is ‘not known for street walkers’.
In the past she has said the Netflix series was full of ‘lies and innuendos’.
The senior judge, who worked the criminal and divorce courts before being assigned to probate in a career spanning 20 years, remembers the case clearly because there wasn’t a body.
‘I was the administrative judge of probate court for about 12 years,’ she recalls.
‘And it’s the only case I’ve ever had where this happened, where we didn’t have a dead body.
‘I was the administrative judge of probate court for 12 years and it’s the only case I’ve ever had where this happened, where we didn’t have a dead body,’ she said
‘The first hearing of course had the family and we had the wife, and the family wanted to bring out some factors that would paint her in not a favorable light.’
She recalls how the family, as well Lewis’ assistant Anne McQueen, tried to suggest Baskin – then Carole Lewis – was working as a prostitute along the infamous Nebraska Avenue red light zone in Tampa when Lewis pulled over in his car.
The allegation was never proven.
‘One of the factors that they brought out, which really wasn’t relevant to the hearing, was how she (Baskin) met Mr. Lewis,’ Judge Sexton explained.
‘And she (Baskin), very matter of factly said, “I was walking down Nebraska Avenue, he was driving, he picked me up”.
‘And I think that was actually on one of her interviews, but at the time Nebraska Avenue was synonymous with prostitution. That’s what it was known for.
‘I’m not in any way suggesting that she was a prostitute, but the fact that they brought that up, didn’t really elicit a response from her that she was outraged.
‘It was just very matter of factly explaining how they met… the family wanted to bring that up because they wanted to paint her in a bad light.’
Over the years Nebraska Avenue became so notorious as a red light district that in July 2019 in a landmark decision, the Tampa City Council passed a bill legalizing prostitution on the street.
It is now legal to peddle sexual favors on Nebraska Avenue in Hillsborough County, 24-hours a day.
Don Lewis was last seen August 18, 1997, a day before a scheduled trip to Costa Rica. He’s pictured with wife Carole and their cubs
Baskin, 59, has always denied any involvement in the disappearance or death of her first husband and she questioned the credibility of the Tiger King series
Judge Sexton officially declared Lewis dead on August 19, 2002, five years from the date of his disappearance. His certificate of death is pictured
Carole Stairs and Don Lewis met while both were still married to other people.
In the Netflix series, Lewis, who was 22 years her senior, pulled his car alongside her on Nebraska Avenue and rolled down the window, offering her a ride.
It’s claimed Baskin was out walking bare foot after fleeing her abusive first husband following a row.
The Lewis family also told the judge the businessman had requested a domestic violence restraining order against his wife about two months before he vanished.
Judge Sexton recalls: ‘It was denied, which is really unusual for those to be denied. They’re not very often denied.’
During the probate hearings the experienced judge recalls how Lewis’ family alleged that Baskin had broken the locks of Don’s offices to take his belongings and she had given his prized gun collection to handyman Kenny Farr.
Farr worked for Lewis for years, and continued working for Baskin after Lewis was gone.
Judge Sexton said Baskin’s behavior was ‘strange’, she said: ‘It was a very sort of matter of fact explanation of why she went on the property and why she cut the locks and that sort of thing. There wasn’t a lot of emotion there as I recall.
‘There was an allegation of behavior after the disappearance that seemed to be consistent with somebody who sort of knew that he (Don Lewis) wasn’t coming back.’
Carole has since married second husband Howard Baskin and the couple run Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit big cat sanctuary near Tampa, Florida, formerly known as Wildlife on Easy Street
Lewis’ daughter Donna Pettis filed an ex-parte injunction relief. ‘He had a lot of property, he had sold mortgages, he had income from that. He had personal property and he had all these cats,’ the judge said
‘From what I understand there was a suggestion or an allegation that she had given a bunch of guns to one of the handymen and then had transferred property.
‘Mr Lewis had bought a bunch of property, some of it through what are called tax deeds,’ she said.
‘He had all sorts of real estate holdings. Some of them, supposedly she sold to this handyman for less than, if you believe them (the Lewis family), market value and that kind of thing. So it was a little strange.’
Judge Sexton said Lewis’ estate totaled around $6million, but because it was being disputed, attorney fees quickly ate into everyone’s share.
‘When you have an estate worth over $6million, you’re going to have litigation,’ she said.
‘He had a lot of property, he had sold mortgages, he had income from that. He had personal property and he had all these cats.
‘You start out with a basketball and you wind up with a golf ball because everybody’s getting attorneys fees all along the way.
‘So essentially (the family) came in and asked to have a conservator appointed, meaning let’s hold the proceedings, let’s conserve the property until we figure out what’s going on.
‘And that’s what happened for basically five years.’
Documents of the petition for appointment of conservator for Lewis’ estate. ‘The came in and asked to have a conservator appointed, meaning let’s hold the proceedings, let’s conserve the property until we figure out what’s going on. And that’s what happened for basically five years,’ Judge Sexton said
Don Lewis was last seen August 18, 1997, a day before a scheduled trip to Costa Rica.
Judge Sexton officially declared him dead on August 19, 2002, five years from the date of his disappearance.
Ultimately Baskin won the disputed probate case and inherited the majority of Lewis’ estate, including the big cat sanctuary they founded together.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office continues to investigate the circumstances around Lewis’ disappearance to determine if anything criminal occurred and no one has been ruled in or out as a potential person of interest.
Baskin, 59, has always denied any involvement in the disappearance or death of her first husband and she questioned the credibility of the Tiger King series.
‘The unsavory lies are better for getting viewers,’ she has said.
She has since married second husband Howard Baskin and the couple run Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit big cat sanctuary near Tampa, Florida, formerly known as Wildlife on Easy Street.
Baskin, who recently performed on Dancing with the Stars, first came to the public’s attention when she was featured in hit Netflix documentary series Tiger King about Oklahoma-based private zoo operator Joe Exotic.
The 2020 series featured Baskin’s feud with Joe Exotic but also examined the disappearance of her first husband.
Judge Sexton also revealed that the family of Jack Donald Lewis (pictured) tried to paint Baskin in a ‘bad light’, hinting that she was a prostitute when she and Lewis met. The family is pictured with Attorney John M. Phillips
Four billboards seeking $100,000 reward for information leading to answers in the death of Don Lewis went up in Tampa, Florida, on August 8
Exotic – real name Joseph Maldonado-Passage – repeatedly accused Baskin of murdering her husband.
Exotic himself was later convicted of a murder-for-hire plot targeting Baskin.
Lewis’ daughters have repeatedly expressed suspicion that Baskin was somehow involved in their father’s disappearance 23 years ago.
In August this year the three women filed a lawsuit in Hillsborough County court against Baskin and handyman Kenny Farr along with a woman listed as a witness on Lewis’ will.
For Judge Sexton, who recently left the bench to pursue other interests, she believes the case may never be solved.
‘The case was a mystery to me back then and it’s still a mystery today.’