April 6, 2020

By episode three, Jerry Mitchell was intrigued — but not because of the warped window the Netflix hit “The Tiger King” offers into the world of private zoos and the people who run them.

Like a lot of people, Mitchell wanted to know more about the disappearance of Tampa millionaire Don Lewis.

Unlike a lot of people, Mitchell has made a career out of solving cold cases.

The investigative journalist spent most of his career at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi. In 2018, he launched the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. His work includes a career exposing Ku Klux Klan members and helping solve cold cases from the Civil Rights era. More recently, Mitchell spent four years on suspected serial killer Felix Vail, who was the last person to see his first, second and third wives before they all went missing.

In 2016, a jury in Louisiana found Vail guilty of murder.

Now, like many people who’ve watched “The Tiger King” in this time of social isolation, Mitchell was intrigued with the topic of episode three — what happened to Don Lewis?

“I just thought, this is wild and anytime there’s an unsolved case where it sounds like there may have been foul play, I think that’s always interesting and intriguing,” said Mitchell, whose book about his work came out this year.

Related: How a Mississippi investigative reporter helped find a suspected serial killer

Mitchell’s spent the past week digging in, and he’s found more nuance than the Netflix series provides. A lot of it is in the weeds, he said.

“When you’re an investigative reporter, you’re interested in what’s in the weeds.”

Because of the huge popularity of the show, Mitchell isn’t sure he’ll have much luck reaching the people he needs to right away — Lewis’ ex-wife and daughters; Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister; and Carole Baskin, Lewis’ wife at the time and the person episode three sets its sights on as the prime suspect.

He’d love to get a hold of Baskin’s diary, which the series shows, too.

Related: She was missing for 51 years. Then this paper took up the case.

“The thing to say in her defense is she’s been talking to police since day one,” Mitchell said. “This is not somebody’s that been hiding somewhere. She’s been open and cooperative with police the whole time.”

Viewers of the program, (which Baskin herself told the Tampa Bay Times was full of “unsavory lies,” and Vox has misgivings about exploitation) might get lost in the cat prints and conspiracy theories.

But for a cold case reporter, the questions “The Tiger King” brings up are a lot more straightforward — if not easily answered.

What evidence exists, Mitchell said, who are the witnesses, what investigations have already been done and what documents are available?

He’s working on all that now.

“It’s just fascinating,” Mitchell said. “I find it all fascinating.”

Update: Mitchell started a Facebook Page for his investigation. You can sign up to follow along.

From the Tampa Tribune, Dec. 9, 1997. (Image via newspapers.com)

Kristen Hare covers the transformation of local news for Poynter.org and writes a weekly newsletter on the transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can subscribe here. Kristen can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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  • If anyone solves this case, it will be Jerry Mitchell! Hope he writes about it! 😉