Owner of car buried at Bay Area mansion had reported it stolen, collected $87,000 insurance payout

Aerial view of police tape around a dig site in a home's backyard
Authorities are continuing to investigate for the presence of human remains days after a car was found buried in the yard of a mansion in Atherton, Calif.
(Nhat V. Meyer / Bay Area News Group)

Days after a car was found buried in the yard of a San Francisco Bay Area mansion, authorities are continuing to search for human remains as questions mount about the property’s former owner and his violent past.

On Monday, San Mateo County Dist. Atty. Steve Wagstaffe told the Mercury News that Johnny Bocktune Lew, who died in 2015, reported the Mercedes-Benz stolen in 1992 and collected $87,000 in insurance on the vehicle.

The district attorney described the case as having the elements of a true crime novel, but with missing parts.


“This book has 15 chapters in it and we’ve only got two chapters,” Wagstaffe told the Mercury News. “I don’t know if we’re ever going to get the other chapters, but I sure hope we do because it is an interesting story.”

The Times could not reach Wagstaffe for comment on Monday.

Landscapers found the car on Thursday, buried in the backyard of a $15-million mansion in Atherton, a small town of about 7,000 people with a median income above $250,000, according to U.S. census data.

The car was discovered 4 to 5 feet deep in the ground behind the home in the 300 block of Stockbridge Avenue, according to the Atherton Police Department. Unused bags of concrete were found inside.

Cadaver dogs were brought in to scour the scene and “made a slight notification of possible human remains,” police said. But so far no remains have been found.

Adding to the questions around the car are sordid details from Lew’s past.

Landscapers found a car buried in the backyard of a $15-million mansion in Atherton on Thursday morning, prompting a police investigation.

Oct. 21, 2022

Neighbors told the Mercury News that Lew, who sold the property in 2014, had a history of violence. Court documents revealed he was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1960s in Los Angeles in the fatal shooting of his ex-girlfriend, Karen Gervasi. The California Supreme Court reversed the conviction in 1968.

He was later convicted on two counts of attempted murder in the 1970s, but details in that case were not readily available.


In the 1990s, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Lew was arrested again, this time for insurance fraud after he attempted to hire people — who later turned out to be undercover agents — to sink his $1.2-million twin-engine yacht off the Golden Gate, claiming it belonged to an Asian crime mob.

In Atherton, authorities spent several days excavating the Mercedes before towing it to the San Mateo County Crime Lab on Saturday for analysis, police said.

“On Sunday ... ground-penetrating radar was used to examine the scene,” police said. “This examination did not reveal anything unusual or suspicious at the scene and no human remains were located. This concluded our on-scene investigation.”

Wagstaffe told the Mercury News that the lack of a body doesn’t mean no crime was committed.

“For all I know, he might have killed somebody and disposed of the body,” he said. “But why wouldn’t you then get rid of the car somewhere else? It’s strange.”

Multiple cadaver dogs have indicated for possible human remains at the site, Wagstaffe told the newspaper, adding that he looked forward to seeing whether a forensic examination of the Mercedes yields any DNA or other evidence.


Ultimately, insurance fraud wouldn’t explain why the car was buried or why the cadaver dogs continued to indicate for the presence of human remains over the weekend, he said.