Jerry Mitchell, a former investigative reporter at the Clarion Ledger, recently turned his attention to solving a disappearance featured in the Netflix documentary, “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” He appears in the second season of the show, which was released in November.
Mitchell is known for writing stories that have led to the convictions of Klansmen guilty of the 1963 assassination of Mississippi NAACP activist Medgar Evers, the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four girls and the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner.
His work also led to the 2016 conviction of Felix Vail and is the oldest conviction in a serial killer case in U.S. history. For more than 30 years, his stories have exposed injustices, corruption and abuse of power. His work has prompted prosecutions, spurred reforms of state agencies and led to firings of state board officials.
Mitchell is a recipient of a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant and more than 30 other national awards, including being named a Pulitzer Prize finalist. His memoir, “Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era,” details some of the cases he pursued. He now heads the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that has a home at Millsaps College.
What led you to investigate the disappearance of Don Lewis, who was married to Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist and CEO of the non-profit Big Cat Rescue, near Tampa? Lewis’ disappearance is one of the storylines explored in the Netflix documentary, “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.”
“A friend of mine whose judgment I trusted said, ‘You have to watch ‘Tiger King.’ To be honest, I didn’t even have a Netflix subscription. I had no intention of getting involved with it. You watch ‘Tiger King’ and the first episode is like a train wreck and you think, ‘the next one can’t be worse.’ And it was like an even worse train wreck.
“In the third episode, the cold case of Don Lewis’ disappearance is introduced. It started with a guy saying, ‘You know, you can’t solve 20-year-old murder cases.’ And I was like, ‘Whoa, yeah, you can.’ I just took it as a challenge.”
Have you traveled to Florida to investigate?
“I’ve been several times to Florida and have talked with people that knew Don Lewis. It’s been an interesting experience.”
“I visited Big Cat Rescue and went around to various places. I think it’s helpful when you’re trying to piece a case together if you can see the actual place where something is supposed to have occurred. It’s the difference between someone telling you what something looks like and actually seeing it yourself.”
Do you have any theory about what happened to Don Lewis? Do you think Baskin killed him?
“All of it is speculation. I don’t think anyone can prove Carole did that. But I do think things point to Don’s demise. From everything I know about his trip to Costa Rica, it seems he never made it there. His van was found at the airport and it was a tiny airport.
“Carole’s theory has long been that Don bought an ultralight (aircraft), took off and crashed and that’s why his body has never been found or his death has never been reported. That’s her best explanation for that. There are some questions for sure in regard to Carole. She has kept a journal and for whatever reason has repeatedly changed her journal entry on her alibi a number of times since ‘Tiger King’ came out, which is odd. Why would you do that?
“I think of a journal as kind of like keeping a daily diary. You don’t go back and rewrite what you wrote in a diary entry. Maybe you go back later and maybe you make a note about something you, found out later. As someone who actually kept a diary for a while, I don’t ever remember going back and writing additional information, an entry would just be whatever it was. I just find it very odd that she has changed her journal entry about her alibi a number of times. That in my mind raises questions.”
What will you do with the information you have collected?
“We don’t know exactly what I’m going to do. I’ve written about 24,000 words already. At one point we were talking about maybe just publishing online, and I know that’s a lot for people to read online. If we can find a publishing partner, I might do that.”
Have you been in touch with Joe Exotic (Joseph Maldonado-Passage), who is featured in “Tiger King?” He is in prison after being convicted for violating federal wildlife laws and a failed murder-for-hire plot targeting Carole Baskin, who runs a rescue sanctuary for big cats in Florida.
“No. I’ve been strictly focused on the cold case.”
Is it difficult to solve a cold case that involves a disappearance?
“It’s an interesting kind of dive looking at a cold case. I’ve worked on other disappearances, but in investigating one with a serial killer (Felix Vail), the main case wasn’t a disappearance. It was about his first wife, Mary, who was drowned in Lake Charles, Louisiana He murdered her and was convicted of that. Disappearance cases are just inherently a little more difficult.”
How did your skill as an investigative reporter that you used to get old civil rights cases re-opened come into play when investigating the disappearance of Don Lewis?
“The civil rights cases I’ve investigated have all been cold cases. You begin to interview people and collect documents. An obvious place to start is with the family and sometimes families will have collected documents. You move onto the public records. Pretty much what you want is to come in initially and sweep law enforcement records.
“Unfortunately, the records of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department involving Don Lewis and his disappearance are not public, which is a bit of a hindrance. They’re not public records because law enforcement is investigating now. They weren’t really investigating when the ‘Tiger King’ documentary came out, but after the ‘Tiger King’ documentary came out, they reopened the case and those files were closed to the public, which is a real shame.”
What’s it like being part of “Tiger King 2,” which came out this fall and will be viewed by millions of people?
“I’ve done a lot of documentaries on TV and cable and I don’t mean to brag about that. This is probably one of the higher profile things I’ve ever been in. The only other thing I can compare it to is when the movie, ‘Ghosts of Mississippi,’ came out and I was portrayed in that. That was an interesting experience.”
You’ve had a career with many high points and awards. What would you like to be remembered for?
“I would like to be remembered with my kids saying I was a good dad. That matters the most.
“The biggest honor to me has been working on all of the cases that were reopened and getting to know the families involved. A really cool thing happened on my 60th birthday two years ago. I actually invited the families to come to a party and quite a number of the families came. It’s very humbling when you see the families of civil rights icons Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer and so many others. I’ve been blessed.”
How do you describe your book, “Race Against Time:” to others?
“It is the story of how justice came in some of the nation’s most notorious murders decades later, and the Medgar Evers assassination, the firebombing of NAACP activist Vernon Dahmer Sr., the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four girls and the killing of three young civil rights workers. It’s told from my perspective and written like a detective story. If people like true crime, they might like my book.”
How has your book been received?
“It’s been very well received. I got a blurb on the back cover from John Grisham, which is always nice, and one from author Erik Larsen and many others. It made NPRs Best Books 2020 and was a New York Times Editor’s Choice. It’s received really good review from The New York Times to the Associated Press to People magazine and Garden & Gun. I was pleased and the publisher was pleased with all of that.”
How has investigative reporting changed since you began your career?
“The book deals with that to some extent but not heavily. When the book starts, there is no internet and then later the internet came about and helped me track down some of the people I was looking for.
“Today there’s social media and so many other things out there that are helpful. It’s a blessing in that you can gather far more information but it can be a curse for those younger to think that the internet is the be all and end all of information, like there’s no information beyond the internet. That’s just far from the truth. Most of the information you need for a cold case is not on the Internet, it’s just not going to be there, so reporting can be a challenge.”
What is the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting that you founded and what is its focus?
“The Clarion-Ledger offered me a buyout and I wound up taking that in 2019 and started the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization. Debbie Skipper, a former longtime Clarion Ledger editor, is our managing editor.
“We work with journalists and young journalists who happen to be college students on projects and try to make a difference. We’ve been reporting on diabetes. We wrote about the most diabetic place in America, which happened to be in the Delta on Arkansas side, and now, they’re trying to rally and do something about it. Diabetes is an issue that doesn’t get talked about that much, but it’s incredibly important. If we don’t change the trajectory of this disease, it could potentially bankrupt our healthcare system and it’s very devastating to families.”
Do you have any advice for students who would want to follow in your footsteps?
“I think that journalism is one of the most noble professions in the world. It’s a means by which we can help people and make a difference in people’s lives.
“The thing that is fascinating and great about reporting is that as a reporter, you have the absolute excuse to call anybody or email anybody you want to. You meet people from all walks of life that you would never meet otherwise and it’s a very rewarding profession.
“As a high school journalist in my hometown of Texarkana, Texas, I met Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Stewart. Ronald Reagan was campaigning for president in 1976 and Jimmy Stewart was campaigning with him. In 1982 while I was still in college and working full time for the Arkansas Democrat, I spent all day hanging out with Bill and Hillary Clinton.”
Do you have any books to recommend?
“I’m reading Stanley Nelson’s new book, ‘Klan of Devils: The Murder of a Black Louisiana Deputy Sheriff.’
“Another one I’ve just started that came highly recommended is ‘Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland’ by Patrick Radden Keefe. I was in New York and Rea Hederman and his wife told me about it.”