Category Archives: Tampa Bay area

The Case of Carole Baskin’s Missing Husband is Still Open

  • Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister is still looking for tips for Carole Baskin’s missing husband Jack “Don” Lewis.
  • Sheriff Chronister held a press conference today, sharing some new details about the investigation.
  • Lewis’ disappearance was featured extensively in an episode of Tiger King, which suggested Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin was a prime suspect.

Joe Exotic

By now, almost everyone has experienced the number one quarantine distraction that is the Netflix documentary series ‘Tiger King’. We covered the arrest of “Joe Exotic’ (Joseph Passage-Maldanado) on Crimcourts back when he was arrested, but the documentary takes a 7-episode deep-dive into he and several other big cat zoos. One of the outstanding mysteries from the show is the disappearance of the first husband of one of those zoo owners, Carole Baskin, the founder and owner of Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue.

The disappearance of her husband, millionaire Jack ‘Don’ Lewis in 1997 has never been solved, and now the Hillsborough County Sheriff is using the renewed interest from ‘Tiger King’ to solicit the public for more information from this still-unsolved case. Sheriff Chronister held a press conference today, and revealed some details of interest to watchers of the Tiger King series. The Sheriff indicated that Ms. Baskin is not being as cooperative as she may have been in the past. HCSO asked her to take a polygraph test, and she declined, citing the advice of her attorney. The sheriff also mentioned the meat grinder that had been on the property, and which was referenced in Tiger King. The sheriff says the meat grinder was removed from the property mere days before it was searched, so it was never able to be tested. It’s also worth noting that the septic tank, which was one of Joe exotic’s favorite theories, was installed well after Mr. Lewis’ disappearance, and is not considered relevant to the case. Baskin disputes allegations she was involved in her husband’s disappearance.

For those who haven’t seen the series, Carole Baskin met Don Lewis walking down the street in Tampa one night, and later married him. Lewis was a millionaire who left his previous wife to be with the much younger Baskin. Lewis apparently had one or more mistresses while married to Baskin, and made frequent trips to Costa Rica. Shortly before his disappearance, he had indicated an intention to a friend that he planned to leave Ms. Baskin. However, he was last seen on 8/18/1997, with no explanation, and his vehicle found abandoned at a small airfield. Not long after, Ms. Baskin revealed a trust that provided for her to control his multi-million dollar fortune in case of his death or, suspiciously spelled out, his disappearance. He was declared dead as soon as the 5-year period ran, and Ms. Baskin inherited the vast majority of his fortune.

There are more details in the series, which I finally watched and insist you do the same. But the new revelations, such as the missing meat grinder, will only add to the suspicion  engendered by the documentary. Joe Exotic was sentenced to 22-years in federal prison for soliciting Baskin’s murder, along with charges for selling and killing tigers. I leave you with the country ballad video produced by Joe Exotic, which uses a Carole Baskin look-alike to suggest she killed Don Lewis and fed him to her cats.

Warrant Issued for Church Pastor that Held Services in Violation of Stay-at-Home Order

A mega-church in Tampa defied a “safer-at-home” order in effect in Hillsborough County, Florida, and held a crowded service Sunday morning. Today, the pastor is facing charges for holding the service in violation of the order. The Sheriff and State Attorney held a press conference this afternoon to announce the charges, saying they had reached out to the church a couple of times, and the church refused to cancel the service. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne will reportedly turn himself in on charges of unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order.

Rodney Howard-Browne via Facebook

The church, and pastor Howard-Browne, will argue that the stay-at-home order violated their first amendment rights, but the equation is not that simple. The order was content neutral, meaning it did not target religious services, but all gatherings. For instance, a city cannot bad one party from putting up signs before an election, but they can ban all signs more than a month before the election: the state has more leeway on such content neutral rules. Usually, those are applied to free speech element of the First Amendment, but these rules also differ in that they deal with the free exercise of religion and the right of peaceable assembly. There’s not much precedent to use, as the last time we had such a public health emergency in this country was 100 years ago during the Spanish Flu epidemic. I think the State will be more interested in stopping the services going forward than they will be in prosecuting a pastor, but the legal question will be interesting to watch.

This twitter post links footage from the service Sunday:

UPDATE: The pastor did turn himself in on the charges. Seems like under the rodney howard-browne mugcircumstance, it would have made more sense to give him a notice to appear. That is, if you’re so worried about social distancing, there is an alternative to processing him through a jail with hundreds of inmates. But, they had a point to make, and wanted to give him a mug shot.

So, I probably ought to watch the ‘Tiger King’ Series on Netflix

Joe Exotic

All the media buzz right now is about ‘Tiger King’, a true-crime documentary series about a man named Joe Exotic who was convicted of hiring a hit-man to try to kill the rival owner of another big cat sanctuary, Carole Baskin. It even has a Florida connection, as Basin runs Tampa-area Big Cat Rescue! Baskin also disputes a lot of what is covered in the show. I did cover the story when he was first indicted. I need to hurry up and watch this series (I’ve still been working my way through the new season of ‘You’). I gotta have the reference point for all of these memes!

Trial is Underway for Michael Drejka, in the Parking Spot Shooting Case

Trial started today in the manslaughter case against Michael Drejka, who shot a man in Clearwater in a dispute over a handicapped parking spot. The entire incident was caught on dramatic surveillance video, which will be played for the jury. Inescapable is the fact that Drejka is white and the victim, Markeis McGlockton, a father of four, is a black man. Further complicating the case, the Defendant got in a dispute with another black man over the same handicapped spot a few weeks earlier and shouted a racial slur at him. The judge has ruled, due to the similarity of the incidents, that the prosecution will get to tell the jury about the prior incident, but not the racial slur he allegedly used.

Drejka is arguing that he was justified in his use of force under the stand your ground law. the stand your ground law provides there is no duty to retreat, but it still requires there be a reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm before deadly force is justified. Based on the video, Drejka has a challenging defense. Jury selection in the case will continue tomorrow.

Exotic Dancer Arrested for Threatening a Mass Shooting

brien basarich

Brein (Brien) Basarich

An exotic dancer from Lakeland, Florida was arrested last week for allegedly posting threats about a possible mass shooting online. Brein Basarich posted on Tumblr under the username “taking lives” that she was thinking about purchasing An AR-15 and had a “vision” of a bar or club with one way out and plans and firing that rifle into a crowd. Her name has also been reported as “Brien Basarich”, I’m not sure which one is correct.

This is a poor criminal case against her… the ‘threats’ that she posted probably do not qualify as threats under Florida law. While posting something on the internet is sufficient to satisfy the “written” element, generally threats must be pretty specific, and not just generalized talk about her “visions” or conditional claims that she could do something. She will say that musing about her fantasies is not a threat, and that she has a Constitutional right under the first amendment to write about her musings, even if they might be violent or unpleasant. That fist amendment protection does not extends to “true threats“, if this qualifies. Obviously law enforcement is sensitive to the through of a shooting at a club, especially so close to where the Pulse tragedy occurred, but they would likely need something more to sustain a prosecution than has been reported so far. Without that, the prosecutors may be forced to drop the charges. It will probably be a few weeks before the filing decision is made.

Zoekeeper named “Joe Exotic” Indicted for Murder-for-Hire Plot against ‘Rival’ Zookeeper in Florida

 

joe exotic

Joe Exotic

An Oklahoma zookeeper, who ran a big-cat shelter and billed himself as “Joe Exotic“, has been indicted and arrested for attempted murder-for-hire for attempting to hire multiple hitmen to kill the CEO of a an animal sanctuary in Florida. Joe “Exotic” Maldanado-Passage, 55, who ran a tiger petting zoo in Oklahoma, had a years-long feud with Carole Baskin, the CEO of Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue, regarding the efforts of animal sanctuaries to effectively boycott Exotic’s travelling zoo for what it claimed were harsh treatment of young tigers. Exotic had retaliated, which led to Baskin suing him, and being awarded judgment against him in excess of $1 million dollars. Exotic has allegedly offered to pay two different people to murder Baskin, but authorities were able to foil his efforts. He has previously made threats to Baskin, and even broadcast them himself on Youtube. The case is in the Federal system, presumably due to the interstate issues of his scheme.

Exotic has garnered some notoriety for his ill-fated campaigns for President and Governor of Oklahoma. Take a few minutes to watch, it’s indescribable…

Big Day for Criminal News in Southwest Florida

jorge guerrero torres

Jorge Guerrero-Torres

Yesterday the State Attorney’s Office and LCSO held a major press conference to announce not one, but two, grand jury indictments for first-degree murder. The first was in the high-profile disappearance of Diana Alvarez. Jorge Guerrero-Torres has been charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping, and lewd and lascivious molestation: the first degree murder charge could be subject to the death penalty, if the State decides to seek it. Guerrero is already under a federal sentence for possession of child pornography related to the case: there was a challenge to the admission of  evidence from his cell phone, but the court permitted it in the federal case, which is a good indicator in the state case. Further, NBC-2’s Jaclyn Bevis reported in December that Guerrero may have made a jailhouse confession to killing the girl and hiding her body.

The other indictment was for a much more recent case, but not the Lois Riess case… yet. The other case was in the robbery-murder of a taxi driver in Lehigh Acres just last month. Three co-defendants have been charged, and two of them are teenagers… one only 13 years old. Not many details have been released, but the State indicated today they sought the indictment due to the “horrendous nature of the crime“. 20-year-old Ricky Lagonde allegedly had a gun and threatened the victim, but the teenagers then shot him.

The other news of the day was that a press conference was held by “ARM”, the Animal Recovery Mission. ARM has been pushing for charges to be brought for some Lee County farms they allege were operating as illegal slaughterhouses and illegally selling horse meat. ARM and their investigators ran their own undercover operations, and presented videos and other evidence first to LCSO and later to the State Attorney’s office, who declined to file charges. Earlier press conferences from ARM have lead to protests against animal cruelty in Lee County. One of the concerns that the State has cited is the difficulty in introducing surreptitiously obtained videos as evidence in court, as our local State Attorney’s office learned the hard way. ARM brought their legal adviser to the session today, and he argued that since the videos were taken at a business with many people around, there was not an expectation of privacy, and that the videos would therefore be admissible. And even if the videos didn’t come in, the ARM witnesses would be available to testify. There’s a lot more to the issue, but suffice it to say, tensions are high on both sides.

Now, a cynic might point out that it was very convenient for the politicians who might be up for election this year that the big indictment announcements came on the same day as the controversial press conference. A cynic might wonder why, after almost two years, and months after the arrest and confession of Jorge Guerrero-Torres, the state obtained an indictment right before the ARMs media push: a push that has been seized on by the outsider running for State Attorney against the Chief Assistant ASA that presented the announcement today. The news of the day ended up being the new charges, and not the activists asking why the State had not moved on the ARM allegations, though it still made some news. I’m not that cynic, and I know that there are legitimate legal reasons that make it very difficult for the State to prosecute the ARM cases. That cynic might also point out that if it had been intentional timing, it was a brilliant bit of political maneuvering to control the biggest stories in the media on what was shaping up to be a bad day for people who have elections coming up.