Nothing brought Americans together this year quite like the Netflix documentary Tiger King. Instead of focusing on the coronavirus and the corresponding economic meltdown, we all escaped for a few hours into the wild world of big cat enthusiasts.
The series is driven by the epic clash between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin who have differing philosophies on big cat breeding, which ultimately land Joe in jail for hiring a hitman to kill Carole. You would think this would make Carole the “good guy” in the story, but things are not that simple. There is an entire episode of the eight-part series dedicated to the mysterious disappearance of Baskin’s husband, and her subsequent decision to use his millions to fulfil her big cat rescue dreams.
Carole Baskin’s second husband was a Florida millionaire named Don Lewis. The two met the night Carole ran away from her first husband. She was a 19-year-old girl with blond hair walking barefoot down the road in the middle of the night, and he, a 40-something guy driving around with a loaded gun, happened by. Carole claims it was love at first sight.
After carrying on an affair for many years, Carole and Don both divorced their then spouses, and wed each other. The couple loved animals, and together they started a zoo/sanctuary. According to the documentary, Don wanted to treat their hobby like a business by breeding and selling big cats. Carole objected. She wanted to run things as a charity, and became an advocate against big cat breeding.
The couple continued to fight about the future of their zoo, until one day in 1997 when Don disappeared. A month later, Baskin filed a will and durable power of attorney document with the court. The power of attorney document was unusual in that it gave Baskin power over Lewis’s affairs if he became disabled or disappeared. Most power of attorney documents do not include language about disappearances.
Lewis was declared legally dead in 2002. His disappearance remains a mystery.
Don’s will left everything to Carole, who had already taken control of his assets through the power of attorney document. Now, the validity of both the power of attorney document and the will are being called into question.
Don’s children from his previous marriage have always suggested the documents Carole provided to the court were faked. Over 20 years ago they hired an expert who determined their father’s signatures were traced. Carole hired her own experts, and the children decided to drop their challenge.
The Tiger King documentary reignited public interest in Don’s disappearance. Law enforcement officials are reportedly investigating new leads, and there is a very active community of people on the internet who are determined to leave no stone unturned. The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting is providing updates on the case, and doing some sleuthing of its own. In an article in the Clarion-Ledger, it reports:
- Two separate handwriting experts have concluded Lewis’ signature was “traced” from his 1991 marriage record. Handwriting expert Thomas Vastrick of Apopka, Florida, said every signature on the will and power of attorney were “traced. It’s always possible one was genuine, and one was traced. They’re all virtually identical. They’re all from a model signature.”
- The notary listed on the will and power of attorney remembers nothing about authenticating them. “I don’t remember a will at all,” notary Sandra Wittkopp told the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. “I was the housekeeper.”
- In addition, it may have been impossible for Wittkopp to have the notary stamp in time to sign the will and power of attorney on Nov. 21, 1996. Wittkopp’s application to renew the notary came in Nov. 16, 1996… In addition, the application for renewal of Wittkopp’s notary application shows that her notary stamp was mailed, not to her address, but to Baskin’s address, 12802 Easy St. in Tampa, where Big Cat Rescue is today.
- Another purported signer of the will, Susan Aronoff, has already told deputies that she testified she was there for the will signing when she actually wasn’t.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but we want to emphasize two points.
First, challenging estate planning documents is not an easy or inexpensive task. If it was, Lewis’s kids could have pushed harder on the signature forgery allegations they made 20 years ago.
Second, this mess is a good example of the importance of working with an experienced estate plan attorney when you or a loved one is ready to draft a will, power of attorney, or other estate planning document. Our team can help ensure your documents are virtually challenge proof. We can also make sure they don’t give anyone an incentive to kill you.