Buried car found at Calif. estate: Possible human remains, fraud links – USA TODAY

The Stockton Record  |  The Record

ATHERTON, Calif. — Police are digging into why someone buried a stolen car in the yard of a multimillion-dollar Northern California home linked to one of San Joaquin County’s largest-ever insurance fraud schemes in the 1990s.

The convertible Mercedes Benz, filled with bags of unused concrete, was discovered Thursday by landscapers in the affluent town of Atherton in Silicon Valley, Atherton Mayor Rick DeGolia said, citing a statement from police.

Although cadaver dogs alerted to possible human remains on Thursday, none had been found more than 24 hours after technicians with the San Mateo County Crime Lab began excavating the car, DeGolia said.

Police believe the car was buried 4 to 5 feet deep in the 1990s – before the current owners bought the home – but Atherton Police Cmdr. Daniel Larsen would not say what led detectives to that conclusion.

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The unused bags of concrete were placed throughout the vehicle, though it was blanketed by dirt over the roof, Larsen said. The car was reported stolen in September 1992 in nearby Palo Alto, DeGolia said.

By Friday, the technicians had been able to excavate the passenger side of the convertible, which was buried with its top down. Cadaver dogs were again brought back to the house and again “made a slight notification of possible human remains,” DeGolia said.

Larsen said the dogs could be reacting to human remains, old bones, blood, vomit, or a combination of those things.

He said the possible owner of the car is believed to be deceased but officials are waiting for DMV records to confirm that.

The sprawling home and property is valued at $15 million, The San Francisco Chronicle reported. Larsen said the current homeowners were not under investigation.

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The home with a pool and tennis court was built by Johnny Bocktune Lew in the 1990s, his daughter, Jacq Searle, told the San Francisco Chronicle. She said the family lived at the property in the 1990s, which is when Atherton police believe the car was buried, and that her father had died in 2015 in Washington state.

Lew had a long criminal history that included a 1977 conviction on two counts of attempted murder and a murder conviction in the 1960s that was later overturned, The Chronicle reported. 

In 1999, Lew was accused of paying undercover officers $30,000 in cash and gold watches valued at $20,000 to sink a $1.2 million yacht in part of an alleged insurance fraud scheme in what was at the time considered the largest single case of insurance fraud the state had seen, San Joaquin County authorities told The Stockton Record, part of the USA TODAY Network, in 1999.

Lew, then 62, was arrested when he showed up to fill out what he thought was the final police report for an insurance company after he reported his 1997 Viking Sport Cruiser missing. He was later moved to the San Joaquin County Jail.

“This is the largest single (fraudulent insurance claim that I know of that’s been submitted,” said then-Deputy District Attorney Franklin Stephenson, who at the time headed up the Economic Crimes Division.

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Lew recruited people from San Joaquin County to destroy his yacht, a sleek vessel more than 50 feet long, officials said.

“We’re not giving all the exact details,” said Scott Edelen, spokesman for the Department of Insurance. “It was in San Joaquin County where the terrorist threats occurred. He said if anyone divulged his scheme, he would have them killed or kill them.”

Atherton is one of the wealthiest towns in the U.S., with about 7,000 residents within its nearly 5 square miles.