At a press conference Friday, Oct. 21, Atherton police say that for a second day in a row, cadaver dogs have indicated the possible existence of human remains in a car discovered buried on the property of a home on Stockbridge Avenue.
Police are trying to get to the bottom of why a car was buried there. Excavation efforts on Saturday appeared successful, as the car was fully unearthed and taken away by tow truck.
Police received a call Thursday, Oct. 20, at around 8:50 a.m. when landscapers discovered the buried car at a home on the 300 block of Stockbridge Avenue in the West of Alameda neighborhood, according to an Atherton Police Department press release. It was publicly identified Friday as a Mercedes Benz convertible with its top down.
Police say the car was reported missing to the Palo Alto Police Department in September 1992. The possible owner of the vehicle is believed to be dead, but Atherton police are waiting for DMV records to be retrieved from its archives to get confirmation.
Cadaver dogs were called to the scene and gave a signal that there may be human remains in the car but as of Friday afternoon, police said no human remains have been located. San Mateo County crime lab technicians are helping dig out the vehicle, Atherton police said, and the excavation is set to continue over the weekend.
Police believe the vehicle was possibly buried sometime in the '90s, based on the stolen vehicle report, and is approximately 4 to 5 feet underground. There were unused bags of concrete found throughout the vehicle, including in the trunk, police said.
On Friday, police Cmdr. Dan Larsen that the convertible's trunk space was largely occupied by the retracted roof.
The car was buried prior to the current owners taking possession, Larsen said.
The home was built in 1990 on a 1.63-acre lot, records show, and was sold in 2014 for $7.4 million and again in 2020 for $15 million. The Almanac is not publishing the exact address to protect the owner's privacy. The town issued a permit for a landscape screening — plantings, shrubbery, bushes or other foliage intended to act as a privacy screen — on the property in September, according to public records.
Previous owner's criminal history
At the Friday press conference, when asked if a previous homeowner is the owner of the car, police declined to comment. Larsen said police are withholding information on the owner of the car because they don't yet know if this a criminal investigation.
Johnny Bocktune Lew, who was the home's owner from 1990 until 2014, had a long criminal history. He was convicted in the 1960s of murdering Karen Gervasi, a woman he was dating in Southern California, according to court records. In 1965, she suffered a fatal gunshot wound at the apartment Lew shared with his wife. The second-degree murder verdict was overturned by the California Supreme Court in 1967 due to an error in admitting hearsay statements.
Lew spent three years in prison after being convicted of attempted murder in 1977, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
His daughter Jacq Searle told the Chronicle that she was shocked to learn of the buried car on the Atherton property where she lived with her parents.
"I feel like all of us grew up with a certain amount of trauma in the household," she told the publication. "My father definitely had emotional issues … this wouldn’t surprise me, just based on how sketchy my father was." Her father died from lung cancer in 2015, she said.
The Chronicle also reported that in 1999, Lew was accused of fraud for hiring undercover cops to sink a $1.2 million yacht so he could cash in on the insurance policy.
Excavation of the car
Authorities said excavation work on the buried car stopped around 10 p.m. on Thursday and resumed at 8 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 21. The majority of the passenger compartment of the vehicle had been excavated, according to police. Around 11 a.m. a cadaver dog was brought back to the scene and again made a slight notification of possible human remains.
Larsen explained that a slight notification means there are could be decades-old human remains, bones, or even blood or vomit. Landscapers have been working on site recently, so it's possible that a worker got cut and bled near the site, he said.
On Saturday, the Mercedes was fully excavated from the yard and taken away, escorted by police, according to local resident Reid Conti, who drove by the scene and took photos of the vehicle on a flatbed truck.
An NBC Bay Area news helicopter got footage of the dig on Thursday.
Police expect to provide an update next on Monday, Oct. 24, barring any major breaking news, Larsen said.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.