The former attorney of Carole Baskin’s long-missing second husband Don Lewis said he believes his client’s signature was forged on two documents that effectively surrendered his fortune to the Tiger King star after he vanished.
Made famous by the Netflix documentary, multi-millionaire Don Lewis, who co-owned a Florida wildlife sanctuary with Baskin, vanished without a trace in August 1997 aged 59.
Lewis has never been found, nor has any evidence to suggest he was murdered, though authorities have previously stated they don’t believe he disappeared on his own volition.
Shortly after his disappearance, Baskin – his wife at the time and the last known person to see him alive – produced his will and his power of attorney that gave her complete control of his $5 million estate.
But one of Lewis’ ex-attorneys, Joseph Fritz, said he now believes his client’s signature on both of the documents are actually forgeries.
‘I believe it was traced,’ Fritz told FOX, adding that he thinks the ledger was copied from Lewis’ marriage certificate, signed some five years prior to his disappearance.
Made famous by the Netflix documentary series ‘Tiger King’, multi-millionaire Don Lewis (left), who co-owned a Tampa, Florida wildlife sanctuary with Baskin, vanished without a trace in August 1997.
But one of Lewis’ attorneys at the time, Joseph Fritz, seen at right speaking with Fox News’ Nancy Grace, said he now believes his client’s signature on both of the documents are actually forgeries. ‘I believe it was traced,’ Fritz told FOX, adding that he thinks the ledger was copied from Lewis’ marriage certificate, signed some five years prior to his disappearance.
However, two handwriting experts now believe Lewis’ signatures on both of the documents were actually forgeries
‘Somebody sat at my office and had the pictures and was able to lay one over the other on their cellphone and they are a perfect match,’ he continued, citing that typically a person’s signature shows at least some variation.
Fritz’s observations have also been supported by two independent handwriting experts: Willa Smith, who contested the legitimacy documents for Lewis’ family back in 1997, and Thomas Vastrick, who voiced his suspicions earlier this week.
‘It’s not a difficult call,’ Vastrick told the Clarion Ledger, adding that the signatures appeared to be ‘the product of tracing’.
Vastrick also believes Lewis’ signature for both documents were traced from his marriage record, noting that the witnesses signatures and the notary on both documents are also ‘identical’, suggesting that at least one — and possibly both — of the documents may have been forged.
He reiterated his findings to Fox on Thursday: ‘In conducting the examination of the durable family power of attorney and the will, both of which were created on Nov. 21 in 1996, I was struck by the uncanny similarity between each set of signatures,’ he said.
‘It was nearly exact replication to the extent that I was very confidently able to opine that what I was dealing with – at least with Mr. Lewis’s signature – that these signatures were traced.’
‘Every time you sign your name, there’s a level of variation from one signature to the next,’ he continued, ‘and these are just way, way too similar. I did not find this a difficult determination at all.’
Shortly afterward his disappearance, Baskin – his wife at the time and the last known person to see him alive – produced his will and his power of attorney that gave her control of his estate and $5 million in assets
In this instance, Fritz says, the most critical document is the power of attorney.
‘[Baskin] managed to move their money and assets and property via the power of attorney, not the will … she had to because he wasn’t declared dead [until] five years later,’ he explained.
DailyMail.com was told ‘Sorry no comment’ when approaching Carole Baskin with questions regarding the claims of forgery. It’s unclear who authored the emailed response.
Fritz has long suspected there is ‘no question’ Lewis was murdered, adding that Lewis loved his tigers and ‘never would have just walked away from them ― ever.’
According to what the attorney has allegedly been told, Lewis was strangled from the backseat of an airplane over Mexico at 50 feet and dropped out over the Gulf.
‘I don’t know who is a murderer and who is not a murderer,’ he said. ‘But I know who is a liar. And I can definitively state that that somebody is lying about it.’
Baskin was never charged in relation to Lewis’ August 18, 1997 disappearance, but the case remains open and gained global notoriety following the release of Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness in March.
Baskin was never charged in relation to Lewis’ August 18, 1997 disappearance, but the case remains open and has grown ever more notorious since the release of ‘Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness’ in March
The series focused on the long-running feud shared between self-proclaimed animal activist Baskin and Joe Exotic (left), a flamboyant polygamist owner of a private zoo in Oklahoma.
The series focuses on the long-running feud shared between self-proclaimed animal activist Baskin and Joe Exotic, a flamboyant polygamist owner of a private zoo in Oklahoma.
Amid the heated fallout that later saw Exotic arrested in a murder-for-hire plot for an alleged hit he took out on Baskin, Exotic repeatedly accused the sanctuary owner of killing Lewis and discarding of his body by feeding it to one of her tigers.
After Lewis was reported missing, deputies found his van abandoned at a nearby airport, where he had allegedly planned to take a trip to Costa Rica. Police found no signs of a struggle or blood inside — nor did they find proof that Lewis ever left the country. Lewis was pronounced legally dead in 2002.
In 2004, Baskin refused to take a polygraph test related to the investigation on the advice of her attorney.
The discovery of the apparent forgeries could be ‘powerful evidence’ in a potential criminal case if one is ever brought forward by prosecutors, Matt Steffey, professor of law at Mississippi College of Law told the Ledger.
‘She has motive anyway, but this ups the stakes,’ Steffey added, pointing out that Baskin was given ‘total control’ of Lewis’ affairs and said ‘it ties a bow on what could be her scheme to get him out of the picture.’
In 2004, Baskin refused to take a polygraph test related to the investigation on the advice of her attorney. She later married to Howard Baskin (left)
One of the other signatures that appears both on the will and power of attorney is that of Susan Aronoff, who has since told deputies she previously testified she was there for the will signing when actually she wasn’t.
According to Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, Aronoff ‘came forward and said she felt pressured at the time to say that it was signed by everyone.’
‘I’m pretty confident, she says that she felt to prove her allegiance to Carol that she felt pressured into saying that she witnessed those signatures.’
Chronister’s claims reference an email chain involving Aronoff from February 2005, in which she claimed to have felt ‘backed against a wall’ by Baskin and ‘from fear of her then I signed a statement, swearing it to be my signature, even though it wasn’t.’
Susan Aronoff has not yet responded to a DailyMail.com request for comment.
Anne McQueen, who served as Lewis’ longtime executive assistant, said the only will and power of attorney she was aware of was one that was under her desk.
McQueen said the will that Lewis had signed and given to her for safekeeping ‘in case anything happened to him’, the documentary highlighted.
In McQueen’s version of the documents, she claims she was named as the executor of Lewis’ will, power of attorney and life insurance.
However, in the version presented after his disappearance, Baskin is listed for executor, power of attorney, and life insurance.
After Lewis was reported missing, deputies found his van abandoned at a nearby airport, where he had allegedly planned to take a trip to Costa Rica. Police found no signs of a struggle or blood inside — nor did they find proof that Lewis ever left the country
The attorney for Lewis’ family first hired Willa Smith in 1997 to conduct handwriting analysis when they challenged the will and power of attorney presented by Baskin.
Lewis’ daughter, Donna Pettis, told the Ledger her family opted not to contest the handwriting analysis any further on the advice of their legal counsel.
‘Our attorney was afraid that if Carole continued serving as conservator over the entire estate, then we were risking that our trust fund would be depleted by the end of the five-year term,’ Donna said of the reason behind the decision.
Under the power of attorney unearthed by Baskin, she was given full control over her husband’s estate in the event of his ‘disability or disappearance’.
Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Amanda Granit confirmed to DailyMail.com that the department previously investigated the allegations of forgery in 2011.
The Sheriff’s Office turned the case over to the Florida attorney general’s office, which later said the five-year statute of limitations on forgeries had expired and the matter was pressed no further.
Baskin has previously stated she authored the legal documents because Don wanted to save money on lawyer’s fees.
In a post published to BigCatRescue.org that has since been altered, Baskin originally wrote: ‘Some people made a fuss about using the word “disappearance,” but Don had told me about people going to Costa Rica and disappearing, and he was dealing with the mob down there, so I thought that seemed like a potential threat and included the word.
‘I also included disability because of Don’s increasingly strange behavior. Our Costa Rican attorney, Roger Petersen, said the Helicopter Brothers were their version of the mob, and Don was loaning them money,’ Baskin continued.
Lewis’ daughter, Donna Pettis (left), said her family followed the advice of their lawyer and chose not to contest the conflict over the handwriting analysis any further
Baskin, the owner of Big Cat Rescue, has also slammed Tiger King as ‘salacious and sensational,’ saying on her website that it ‘has a segment devoted to suggesting, with lies and innuendos from people who are not credible, that I had a role in the disappearance of my husband Don in 1997.’
In response to the claims made by McQueen that Lewis handed her a will to keep in the event that ‘anything should happen to him’, Baskin wrote: ‘Anne McQueen is referred to as Don’s trusted assistant [in Tiger King].
‘A few months before his disappearance we caught her embezzling roughly $600,000 in properties by buying them with our funds and putting them in her name. A court ordered her to return them. Not the best sign of integrity, credibility, someone to believe,’ she continued.
Last month, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said he believed Lewis was murdered.
Chronister said Baskin ‘is not a suspect at this time’, adding the department doesn’t even had a ‘shred of evidence to even call her a person of interest’.