Mississippi reporter discovers Tiger King’s will may have been forged

Published 1:40 pm Tuesday, May 19, 2020

More evidence has emerged that the will for Tiger King’s Don Lewis, a Florida multimillionaire who disappeared in 1997, may have been forged.

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.”

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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.”

Legal experts say this revelation is potential evidence if prosecutors ever charge his wife at the time, Carole Baskin, in the disappearance of her then-husband, Lewis, who was declared legally dead in Tampa, Florida, in 2002.

In the days following Lewis’ disappearance, Baskin produced a power of attorney that gave her control of his estate and a new will that gave her the bulk of that estate.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office previously investigated this allegation of forgery and turned the case over to the Florida attorney general’s office, which determined that the five-year statute of limitations on forgery had passed.

The Netflix documentary Tiger King, which detailed the animal sanctuary owner’s disappearance, has captured the public’s interest during the pandemic and has prompted new interest in the case.

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.

Two days after Lewis disappeared, Baskin filled out all the forms for Aronoff to set up a nonprofit for her own animal sanctuary, Preservation Station (now known as Zooville USA), and paid the $700 registration fee, Aronoff wrote in an email.

In a series of Feb. 25, 2005, emails shared with MCIR that reportedly were sent by Aronoff to a recipient whose name has been blacked out, she wrote that when Don “disappeared and the kids were contesting the will, I got a phone call from Carole to go to court because it seems that I was one of the supposed witnesses on the will! …

“The problem with the will is that Carole had me backed against a wall at the time and from fear of her then I signed a statement, swearing it to be my signature, even though it wasn’t. I could go to jail for that I’m told.”

Aronoff also wrote in the emails, which authorities have, that she had a letter of recommendation for her Class I certification to own big cats with what purported to be Don’s signature on it. “Don told me that was Carole’s version of his signature and that if I had ever seen his, I would know that what I had wasn’t it.”

Aronoff could not be reached for comment. Nor could Doug Edwards, whose signature also appears on the document, or Baskin, who prepared the documents.

Wittkopp told MCIR that she worked for Lewis and Baskin for six years.
Baskin has admitted Lewis was talking about divorce, but she insisted he wasn’t serious. Tiger King detailed some of those woes.

Asked about the couple’s relationship, Wittkopp replied, “I never knew they were fighting and wanting to get divorced. They must have kept it a secret.”

At her request, MCIR emailed her copies of the will and power of attorney, but after she received them, her husband said she didn’t want to talk anymore.

In the 1997 sworn statement purportedly signed by Wittkopp, she was quoted as saying she witnessed both the will and power of attorney document that Lewis signed.

But Vastrick said her purported signatures on those documents look different than her supposed signature on the affidavit.

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.

According to Lewis’ longtime executive assistant, Anne McQueen, who is a notary, it takes about two weeks for the stamp to be produced and delivered.

“There is no way on God’s earth that the notary would have had that stamp by Nov. 21, 1996,” she said.

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.

Notaries take an oath to carry out their role as impartial witnesses to authenticate and help deter fraud in signing documents, according to the National Notary Association. Notaries are required to check identities and to make sure those signing aren’t under any kind of duress.

McQueen said the only will and power of attorney she knew about for her boss, Lewis, was under her desk.

Lewis made McQueen the executor for his will, power of attorney and life insurance. His family said he trusted her completely.

But on the new will and power of attorney that emerged after his disappearance, his wife was named the executor.

McQueen said the will that Lewis had signed and given her for safekeeping was “absolutely” different than this new will that appeared.

Under the new power of attorney, Baskin was given control of her husband’s estate in event of his “disability or disappearance.”

Jackson, Mississippi, lawyer Paul Varner, who has handled estate planning for more than three decades, said he has never seen a power of attorney document that included disappearance. “How are you going to prove that person disappeared instead of is on vacation?” he asked.

Baskin has posted online that she included “disappearance” because Lewis was making regular trips to Costa Rica. “I thought that seemed like a potential threat and included the word,” she wrote.

Informed of the revelations, Lewis’ daughter, Donna Pettis, told MCIR, “I’m ecstatic because it proves the handwriting analysis we did 23 years ago is right, and we couldn’t get anyone to listen to us. We know the case is not going to be solved overnight. We might be in for the long haul.”

Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that is exposing wrongdoing, educating and empowering Mississippians, and raising up the next generation of investigative reporters. Sign up for MCIR’s newsletters here for the latest updates on the Tiger King story and other investigative reports. Email him at Jerry.Mitchell.MCIR@gmail.com

Research assistance for this story provided by Andrea Ledwell, the MCIR Team and the Ripper Team, including @mysticjynx.