Car buried in California backyard reportedly stolen in 1992, previous homeowner under spotlight

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

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Friday, October 21, 2022
Previous homeowner under spotlight after car found in Atherton yard
Johnny Bocktune Lew, the previous owner of the Atherton mansion, is under spotlight after a car stolen in 1992 was found buried in the backyard.

ATHERTON, Calif. -- The discovery of a car buried in an Atherton backyard has raised a lot of eyebrows and a lot of questions.

So far, no body has been found even though cadaver dogs reacted to the scene. Investigators think the car may have been buried since the 90s.

Landscapers found the car Thursday morning while working in the backyard of a multi-million dollar mansion on Stockbridge Avenue.

The car is an early 90s Mercedes Benz model convertible that was reported stolen in September 1992, according to Palo Alto police records. No plates or vehicle identification number information have been released at this time.

"The possible owner of the vehicle is believed to be deceased. We're waiting for DMV records to confirm that and they're being retrieved from DMV archives," said Atherton Mayor Rick DeGolia at a news conference Friday afternoon.

But authorities still don't know who buried it or why.

"It looks like a Netflix video or a series," said neighbor Sharon Traeger.

"Why would you bury a vehicle in your lot," asked Don Traeger.

It's on ongoing mystery for people who live in a quiet wealthy community in Atherton. On Stockbridge Avenue, a major excavation is underway.

Crime scene technicians are combing for clues and cadaver dogs have come up with a hit not once, but twice.

"It could be human remains. They could be reacting to blood. They could be reacting to old bones," said Commander Dan Larsen of Atherton Police. "They could be reacting to human vomit, it could be any one of those combinations of things. Because of the time frame that this vehicle has been buried for approximately 30 years, that a slight reaction would be consistent with the duration that the vehicle has been buried."

"It's creepy. You don't imagine it happening in your own neighborhood. You watch the Datelines and that's what people say," said Don Traeger, who lives about five doors away from the house being investigated.

"Everybody in our family at least is wildly texting each other. What could it be? How strange it is to have something happen to you so close," said Sharon Traeger.

From SKY7 overhead, you can see investigators hard at work.

According to Atherton police, when landscaping crews at a multi-million dollar home on Stockbridge Avenue unearthed a car filled with unused bags of concrete, authorities launched an investigation.

The car was buried four-to-five feet underground and had been buried since the 1990s according to police Commander Dan Larsen.

Investigators are now done excavating the majority of the passenger compartment. No human remains have been discovered.

An important distinction to make is that police say the vehicle was buried before the current homeowners took possession of the house. But they say these homeowners are cooperating with the investigation, although they did not want to talk to ABC7 News.

"This is an ongoing investigation, and we do not know what that's what direction this investigation is going right now. We do not know if this is a criminal or non-criminal investigation," Larsen said.

Richard Hartnett lives a street over from the home under investigation. He's seen the SKY7 video of the excavation.

"It can happen anywhere I guess. I guess they can't be a crime scene unless you find some bones or something, remains," Harnett said.

Neighbors are stunned. Some even think they knew the previous owner.

"We knew a guy a little bit. If it's the guy we remember, he was a doctor at Stanford," said Don Traeger.

According to records, the owner of the house at the time was a man named Johnny Bocktune Lew - who has since come under the spotlight.

Not least of all, for his past, which includes arrests for crimes such as murder and insurance fraud.

"He was arrested for arranging to have a yacht sunk so he could collect the insurance proceeds," said San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.

Mr. Lew died several years ago, and the house has since changed hands several times.

Police say the current owners had no idea what was underneath their backyard.

"When I first heard about it, I said this sounds just so obviously like we're dealing with foul play of some sort," Wagstaffe said.

The case remains an ongoing and active investigation.

Both police and San Mateo County authorities have stressed that no criminal charges have been brought against anyone.

So for now, we wait for answers.

"Sometimes these answers come in 24, 48 hours. Other times it's legwork, search warrants, looking at old records," Wagstaffe said.

Officials will give another update on how the excavation work is going so far on the property on Monday.