No body found in car buried at $15M Atherton mansion, but 'critical' questions remain

The owner of the house at the time - records show a man named Johnny Bocktune Lew - had a criminal past.

Stephanie Sierra Image
Tuesday, October 25, 2022
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Authorities say no human remains were found in a vehicle buried at a multi-million dollar home in Atherton, California.

ATHERTON, Calif. (KGO) -- Detectives finished their on-scene investigation searching for possible human remains on the property of a $15 million Atherton mansion where a Mercedes Benz was found buried five feet underground last week.

But, a series of questions linger as to why it was there and its potential ties to a former property owner.

"This is not something that happens, it just doesn't happen," said Atherton Mayor Rick DeGolia.

VIDEO: Car buried in Atherton backyard reportedly stolen in 1992, previous homeowner under spotlight

Investigators found no trace of human remains at the scene, but city officials tell the I-Team the search isn't over yet.

"Clearly there were issues with Jonathan Lew who owned the house, owned the car, and reported the car stolen," DeGolia said.

Mayor DeGolia says investigators are still waiting for official DMV records but suspect the former property owner John Bocktune Lew is also the owner of the Mercedes Benz found buried on the property. The convertible was reported stolen to the Palo Alto Police Department in September of 1992 and believed to be buried around that time.

"The speculation is that he reported it to be stolen," said DeGolia.

VIDEO: Car discovered in backyard of Atherton home was likely buried in 1990s, police say

Records reviewed by the I-Team show Lew had two prior attempted murder convictions out of LA County before moving to this property with his family in 1990. Records show the home stayed in the family up until 2014.

Lew was charged with insurance fraud in 1999 when he allegedly hired undercover officers to sink his $1.2 million yacht off the Golden Gate Bridge before reporting it stolen to his insurance company.

"Presumably, he did the same thing with this car but that hasn't been determined," said DeGolia. "I think it's a fair guess this is a case of insurance fraud."

On Friday, Atherton police said it's unclear whether this will be a criminal investigation. City officials say there's a lingering detail that's puzzling investigators.

"They have received slight hits from the cadaver dogs each time the cadaver dogs have come near the car. But, they haven't found anything," DeGolia said.

RELATED: Buried car removed from backyard of multi-million dollar Atherton home, investigators say

The I-Team spoke with 36-year veteran cadaver dog specialist Harry Oakes who manages an international K-9 search and rescue company. He explains a hit from the K-9 signals human scent is detected from that specific area.

Stephanie Sierra: "What does that mean?"

Oakes: "It could be from somebody who has died in that car and the body has been moved. Or maybe the body was moved on the ground in that area and then bodies were moved around. When a person dies, they stain the ground or the area that they die in. And it stays there for many, many years. Especially when contained in a vehicle."

Sierra: "But, if no human remains are found in the car?"

Oakes: "It could mean a body was there at some point. Or just the scent of somebody sitting inside the car over the years. Somebody could've vomited, urinated, or defecated."

Oakes says the bottom line is a K-9 is rarely ever wrong -- if a scent is detected, even if it's slight, it signals a human or body was in and around that particular area.

"The search dog doesn't know how to lie," Oakes said.

Investigators say the cadaver dogs signaled possible human remains near the car at least two times. Detectives have cleared the property and moved the car to the San Mateo County Crime Lab for further inspection.

The video in the media player above is from a previous report.

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