Tiger King! Netflix’s hottest new show right now that everybody is streaming!
On March 20, 2020, Netflix put out a new show that discusses large cat zoos in America. In episode 3, they discuss Carole Baskin, who runs Big Cat Rescue in Florida, in depth.
The whole storyline in episode 3 is that Carole Baskin murdered her husband and fed him to the tigers. Crazy, right? Since everything in this story is insane, it doesn’t really stand out. However, the filmmakers do spend an entire episode discussing it. The basic story is that in 1997, Baskin’s husband Don Lewis disappeared. Never was heard from again. There is significant discussion regarding the evidence and circumstances surrounding the disappearance. Did Baskin kill him? Did Baskin feed him to the tigers???? Joe Exotic says so and surely we can trust him!
The episode alleges (with comments from family and friends of Lewis) that Baskin killed her husband to get control over his money. The more I watched the episode and read about it, the more I realized that if Baskin truly did murder her husband and feed him to the tigers, it was the dumbest way to control his money. As I will discuss below, doing so required her to manage everything through the Court system with the family receiving information every step of the way. Additionally, she had to manage all of the money in her allegedly deceased husband’s best interest for 5 years before she could take the money herself.
I wanted to learn more about this situation, so, I went to the Hillsborough County Court online docket website. You can go to https://hover.hillsclerk.com/ and try it yourself. Through some sleuthing I was able to find the Conservatorship proceeding. You can search via case number P97-CP-002001 to go directly to it.
What is a Conservatorship? It is a Court process to manage money and assets for somebody who is unable to do so. The Florida Conservatorship is specific to people who have disappeared. California Conservatorship covers anyone over the age of eighteen and also applies to the management of healthcare. Florida Probate Statute 747.01(2) provides the definition here:
(2) Any resident of this state, or any person owning property herein, who disappears under circumstances indicating that he or she may have died, either naturally, accidentally or at the hand of another, or may have disappeared as the result of mental derangement, amnesia or other mental cause, shall also be an “absentee” within the meaning of this law.
Since Lewis disappeared, he counts as an “absentee.” Florida Probate Statute 747.032(1) allows the Court to appoint a person or persons to manage the property and assets of an absentee:
(1) If, after hearing, the court is satisfied that the person alleged to be an absentee is an absentee as defined in s. 747.01 and that it is necessary that a conservatorship be established, she or he shall appoint a conservator of the estate and property of said absentee to take charge of the absentee’s estate and property under the supervision, and subject to the further orders, of the court.
The person that the Court appoints is called a Conservator. So, a Conservator manages the assets for a person who has disappeared. We here at the Talbot Law Group have set up Conservatorships for absentee people in California, also. In general, however, relatives of Conservatees know the location of said Conservatee, even if he or she has been allegedly kidnapped by another relative.
Since Lewis disappeared there was nobody to manage his assets and the Court had to appoint somebody to manage the assets until either he came back alive or was found dead (or the Court deemed him dead, more on that later).
Baskin has actually put a PDF of the docket available online (more on the reason why later).
So, you can look at it yourself and follow along here. They do not appear to have any documents digitally available online so my sole abilities here are to read the title of the documents and proceedings and analyze it from there. What does the docket tell me?
Firstly, the docket is 24 pages long! There are 587 entries. This was a highly litigated matter. This was not a process where Carole Baskin was able to just sneak legal proceedings past everybody. The way the family talks, it sounds like Baskin used her sneaky wiles to strong arm them. Again, by involving a Conservatorship and Court procedure, Baskin gave the family *more* rights than they were entitled to either if Lewis was still alive or confirmed dead.
FAMILY AGREES TO BASKIN
In fact, it appears that the family came to an agreement with Baskin regarding the Conservatorship proceeding. Here’s glimpse at the court’s docket of filed docs:
09/16/1997: OATH OF CONSERVATOR DESIGNATION OF RESIDENT AGENT AND ACCEPTANCE – DOUGLAS B STALLEY
09/16/1997: OATH OF CONSERVATOR DESIGNATION OF RESIDENT AGENT AND ACCEPTANCE – CAROL A LEWIS
09/16/1997: AGREED ORDER APPOINTING CO-CONSERVATOR OF THE PROPERTY AND ASSETS
09/16/1997: NOTICE OF FILING WAIVERS OF PRIORITY ETC
09/16/1997: WAIVER OF PRIORITY, CONSENT TO APPOINTMENT OF CONSERVATOR & WAIVER OF NOTICE DONNA PETTIS
09/16/1997: WAIVER OF PRIORITY, CONSENT TO APPOINTMENT OF CONSERVATOR & WAIVER OF NOTICE GALE RATHBONE
09/16/1997: WAIVER OF PRIORITY, CONSENT TO APPOINTMENT OF CONSERVATOR & WAIVER OF NOTICE LYNDA SANCHEZ
09/16/1997: WAIVER OF PRIORITY, CONSENT TO APPOINTMENT OF CONSERVATOR & WAIVER OF NOTICE DANNY LEWIS
First, Carole Baskin filed for Conservatorship. She wanted to control the assets all by herself. The family filed an Objection to this document. On September 16, 1997, all of the children filed consents to Baskin acting as Conservator as long as she had a Co-Conservator with her. It appears they were all Lewis’s children and not Baskin’s. There is a listing of Douglas B. Staley being appointed as Conservator with Baskin.
If you scroll down to the 9.16.97 listing on Baskin’s docket, she has a yellow highlighter there. If you hover your mouse over it, she has a note affirming what I wrote in the paragraph above.
I searched for Douglas Staley and found his LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/doug-stalley-57497134
It lists him as a fiduciary (although he misspells it as a fiducairy). A fiduciary is a professional who manages assets for the benefit of another. Deals between family members that involve the appointment of a fiduciary are extremely common in the California probate field, and most likely in Florida as well. It is less common to have a fiduciary working as a Co-Conservator with a non-professional, at least in California. Professionals generally do not like to work with non-professionals, because they do not want to put their license on the line. In this instance, however, the parties reached this agreement.
So, when the family says that Baskin was running amok, remember they agreed for her to be Co-Conservator and there was a professional there. At least for the first two years. More on that later.
Another item that is a bit weird from the documentary is how nobody seems to know how much Lewis is worth. The thing about Conservatorships is that you have to inventory all known assets in the Conservatorship. The Co-Conservators filed it on March 10, 1998, several months after appointment:
03/10/1998: VERIFIED INVENTORY OF CO-CONSERVATORS
So, it is a public document. I could send away to the Hillsborough County Records Department right now (to the extent that they are open during the Coronavirus pandemic) and obtain this document. According to this news article from 1997, there is about $4,000,000 in the Conservatorship:
A judge appointed a conservator to, with Carole, jointly safeguard Lewis’ holdings, valued at more than $4-million.
Now, this is not the total of all of Don Lewis’ money. He appears to have some money in at least one Trust. However, the family would know how much is in there as they appear to have controlled the Trust.
The Case Report lists the following:
Next of Kin MCQUEEN, ANNE – TRUSTEE
Anne McQueen is interviewed in Tiger King and was apparently Don’s executive assistant. In the documentary, she discusses how Baskin removed her from the Will. That may be true, but it appears that McQueen is in control of the Trust. The film presents her as affiliated with the family.
Additionally, on August 31, 1999, there is a listing regarding Sole Conservator here.
08/31/1999: AMENDED LETTERS OF CONSERVATORSHIP OF THE PROPERTY AND ASSETS OF JACK DONALD LEWIS/DL ACCOUNT
08/31/1999: AMENDED ORDER APPOINTING SOLE CONSERVATOR OF THE JACK DONALD LEWIS/DL ACCOUNT
08/31/1999: AMENDED LETTERS OF CONSERVATORSHIP OF THE PROPERTY AND ASSETS OF JACK DONALD LEWIS/GALTA ACCOUNT
08/31/1999: AMENDED ORDER APPOINTING CONSERVATOR OF THE JACK DONALD LEWIS/GALTA ACCOUNT
If you go to Baskin’s notated versions, she has a note here how she acted as sole Conservator from this point for all assets except for PSLR Trust. The note indicates that Lewis’ kids managed the PSLR Trust. It is not entirely clear what the PSLR Trust is, but Baskin’s note states that it is for assets Lewis owned prior to their marriage. It is not clear if the Trust that McQueen is in charge of is the same as the PSLR Trust. If not, then there are two Trusts – but the kids and McQueen are in charge of them. They would know the amount of assets in this Trust or these Trusts in addition to the $4,000,000 in the Conservatorship.
MANAGEMENT OF ASSETS
So, what does most of these 587 docket items consist of? Well, it seems that there were a lot of various activities to manage the assets. For example, they have listings like this:
10/20/1997: PETITION TO APPROVE LEASE OF REAL PROPERTY AND PURCHASE OPTION
The Petition to Approve Sale of Real Property is the most common version of this Petition we see in California Conservatorship matters.
This case started in August, so less than 2 months later, the Co-Conservators started managing the estate. Since Lewis was not around to do it and it was a multi-million dollar estate, this was imperative. There are a lot of these types of listings, showing that the Co-Conservators were taking a lot of action to manage the estate.
In California probate courts, all family members have to be noticed for these pleadings. Florida is likely the same. What that means is that everytime Baskin and the professional filed a Petition to seek authority to take action, they had to mail a copy of the paperwork to the family. So, the children would be informed of every action taken every step of the way. They could object if they wanted to.
This is actually significantly more information that they would have than if Lewis was alive and not disappeared. That is what is so bizarre about the way in which the filmmakers presented this episode. If Baskin’s goal was to secretly control Lewis’ assets for her benefit, filing a Conservatorship and having a professional co-manage assets with you is by far the worst possible approach.
Additionally, every year Baskin filed an Annual Accounting. This is standard practice under California probate law. Here is an example of a listing on January 9, 2001:
01/09/2001: ANNUAL ACCOUNTING 1/1/99 – 3/31/99
It remains unclear to me why the 1999 accounting would be filed in 2001 and why it only lists 3 months there. However, this means that every penny of the 4 million dollar estate is accounted for and that it is mailed to the family members.
There is another important aspect to this Conservatorship that is not discussed in the documentary. Reviewing the docket, you can tell that there is a litigation process going on. What I mean by that is you can tell somebody is suing somebody else.
The initial filing appears to be on April 30, 1998. The listing states:
04/30/1998: PETITION TO COMPEL DELIVERY OF PROPERTY AND ASSETS OF JACK DONALD LEWIS
What does this mean? According to Baskin’s notated docket, her “Petition to Compel” was essentially her suing Anne McQueen for stealing approximately $400,000 from the Estate. At the end of 2000, it appears that Baskin won:
12/22/2000: ORDER GRANTING MOTION FOR TURNOVER OF DISPUTED PROPERTY
Here is a listing for an Order granting the motion to return the property. Baskin’s notated docket confirms this. She won an Order against McQueen to return the property. This impugns McQueen’s credibility in the documentary.
One of the last items on the docket is the following:
10/08/2002: ORDER DETERMINING JACK DONALD LEWIS AKA J.D. LEWIS AKA DONALD LEWIS, DECEASED
The documentary paints this as a sinister action, but it is a fairly standard action to determine the death. Baskin relied upon Florida Probate Code 731.103(3), which states:
(3) A person who is absent from the place of his or her last known domicile for a continuous period of 5 years and whose absence is not satisfactorily explained after diligent search and inquiry is presumed to be dead. The person’s death is presumed to have occurred at the end of the period unless there is evidence establishing that death occurred earlier. Evidence showing that the absent person was exposed to a specific peril of death may be a sufficient basis for the court determining at any time after such exposure that he or she died less than 5 years after the date on which his or her absence commenced. A petition for this determination shall be filed in the county in Florida where the decedent maintained his or her domicile or in any county of this state if the decedent was not a resident of Florida at the time his or her absence commenced.
California has a statute very similar to this. I suspect all states do. Think of it this way: the funds were tied up for 5 years in this Conservatorship. They could not be distributed to the beneficiaries and had to be held in place for the best interest of a man who may or may not be alive. After five years, it is highly unlikely that Lewis is coming back if he is still alive. That is the part at which the legislature said that the parties should be able to move on. So, Baskin filed to allow the funds to be distributed.
In the documentary, the children state that they received approximately 10% of all of the total funds. It is not possible for me to double check that. There are a few notes here, however.
It appears that the kids are the beneficiaries of the Trust or Trusts here. That is what Baskin claims and McQueen was managing at least one of the Trusts.
Florida, like all states, has a Slayer Statute. California also has a Slayer Statute. What that means is that if you kill somebody you do not take under their will. This is codified in Florida Probate Code 732.802(1), which states:
(1) A surviving person who unlawfully and intentionally kills or participates in procuring the death of the decedent is not entitled to any benefits under the will or under the Florida Probate Code, and the estate of the decedent passes as if the killer had predeceased the decedent. Property appointed by the will of the decedent to or for the benefit of the killer passes as if the killer had predeceased the decedent.
If Lewis’ family genuinely felt that Baskin murdered Lewis, they should have brought a lawsuit to block her from taking any funds.
There is much more to this story than the filmmakers paint. They paint Baskin in a negative light but based off of independently verified Florida case actions and statutes, her process here isn’t wholly negative. She worked with a professional fiduciary at the behest of the family. She claims to have allowed the family to manage the Trust or Trusts. She filed an action to bring assets into the estate.
I cannot speak as to whether Baskin killed her husband and fed him to the tigers. Maybe she did but it delayed her receiving the money for five years. A more efficient way would have to be to kill her husband in an “accident” and then have a body. She would have received the money much quicker than 5 years. Either way, Tiger King is a very entertaining documentary, starring Joe Exotic, Doc Antle, and Carole Baskin. Would recommend!
Matthew Talbot is the principal owner of the Talbot Law Group, a firm focused on probate, trust litigation, conservatorship, and estate planning in Northern California. Should you need help with any trust or probate issues, do not hesitate to contact us at 925 322 1795.