ATHERTON, Calif. (KRON) — A mystery has been unearthed at a mega mansion in Atherton after a landscaping crew found a Mercedes-Benz sportscar buried under one of the pristine property’s gardens. On Friday, new clues surfaced on the mansion’s former owner who was once convicted of murdering his secret lover.

The wealthy family who lives at 351 Stockbridge Avenue has already been exonerated because police determined that the vehicle was hidden underground before they moved in.

The Atherton Police Department stated, “The vehicle was possibly buried sometime in the 1990’s and was buried approximately 4-5 feet into the ground. Cadaver dogs made a slight notification of possible human remains.”

351 Stockbridge Avenue was bought in 1994 by the family trust of John Bocktune Lew, property records show. The 1994 sellers were also trustees of John Bocktune Lew family.

The mansion has five bedrooms and seven bathrooms, and was most recently sold for $15 million in March of 2020, according to Zillow. The mansion itself is 12,634-square-feet, and it sits on 1.63 acres of gated property.

Today the property is worth more than $18 million, according to Zillow. But the pricey property is now a crime scene for a case police are calling a “suspicious circumstance” investigation.

Investigators excavate a Mercedes-Benz on Oct. 21, 2022 that was found buried in the backyard of an Atherton mansion the previous day. (KRON4 image)

San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe told KRON4 that the vehicle is a sportscar convertible that was buried with its top down. “It’s down there pretty deep. Our crime lab is carefully using hand shovels. So far, there is no evidence of human remains,” Wagstaffe said.

The Atherton Police Department also confirmed that no definitive evidence of human remains had been found as of Friday afternoon.

“The vehicle is a Mercedes-Benz and was reported as stolen to the Palo Alto Police Department in September of 1992. The possible owner of the vehicle is believed to be deceased. We are waiting for DMV records,” Atherton police stated.

Lew died seven years ago at age 77, according to death records.

Atherton police Cmdr. Dan Larsen said police believe that the Mercedes-Benz was buried in the early 1990’s because that is the same time period when the luxury car was reported as stolen.

John Bocktune Lew’s criminal history

The Atherton mansion mystery deepened when court documents, and a 1999 KRON4 news report, revealed Lew’s criminal history. His criminal history includes a murder conviction and yacht insurance scandal.

In 1966, Lew was convicted in Los Angeles County of murdering his secret lover, Karen Gervasi, court documents show. His conviction was later reversed by the California Supreme Court and he was released from prison.

Court documents from his appeal state, “Defendant, though married, had for some time been enamored of Karen; they were sexually intimate, and there was some contemplation of marriage. On the day Karen died defendant had picked her up at her parents’ house. Karen expressed a desire to fire defendant’s pistol. He agreed to take her to a pistol range, and they stopped at his apartment to get the gun.”

The appeal states that Karen’s death was an accidental shooting. “The clip fell to the floor, and as he bent over to pick it up he heard a shot. The bullet struck Karen in the left temple just above her eye. Defendant became hysterical when he discovered that Karen was no longer breathing. Karen was lying on her back and bleeding profusely around the head.”

Lew served three years in prison before his conviction was overturned and he was released from custody.

atherton mystery
Atherton mystery mansion (Photo by Sara Stinson / KRON4)

The sportscar was found underground at 8:50 a.m. Thursday. The property was surrounded by police detectives and a San Mateo County Sheriff’s Crime Lab while Bay Area television news helicopters flew overhead.

Investigators paused their excavation at 10 p.m. Thursday and resumed digging at dawn Friday. They found unused bags of concrete throughout the Mercedes-Benz.

Yacht Insurance Scandal

Lew was 62 years old and living in Atherton when he attempted to hire someone to sink his luxury yacht in 1999, according to police. Lew allegedly paid undercover agents $30,000 in cash to intentionally sink his yacht near the Golden Gate Bridge.

Lew didn’t realize he was talking to undercover agents when he threatened that if anyone revealed the secret, “his people” would kill them, according to police. The undercover agents worked for the California Insurance Commissioner.

Lew’s plan was to claim that the boat was stolen and collect $1.2 million from his insurance company, KRON4 reported in a 1999 news story.

While Lew was in China on a business trip, agents took the boat from the marina and transported it to Stockton to store as evidence. When he returned from China, Lew reported his yacht as stolen to the Redwood City Police Department. He was arrested on suspicion of insurance fraud shortly after.

Atherton Excavation Continues

It took someone considerable effort to bury an entire sportscar five feet underground.

Neighbors were curious on Friday to know more about the mystery that surfaced right in their ritzy neighborhood. “We’re just waiting to hear what’s in the car. I think he probably just buried the car for insurance money,” one neighbor told KRON4.

Atherton police Cmdr. Dan Larsen repeatedly emphasized that, so far, police are unsure of what kind of crime they are dealing with. It’s possible that no crime occurred, he added.

The motive and circumstances surrounding the mysterious incident will take some time for investigators to sort through, Larsen said.

Larsen said police will not release the name of the Mercedes-Benz’s registered owner until the name is confirmed through the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

Due to the unknown nature of why the vehicle was buried, cadaver dogs were brought to the scene on Thursday. The dogs made a “slight notification” for the scent of human remains, police said. Another cadaver dog was brought back to the excavation site on Friday. “The cadaver dog again made a slight notification of possible human remains,” APD stated.

Larsen said the excavation will be slow and methodical. “The majority of the top of the vehicle has been uncovered, but the entire interior of the vehicle is also filled with dirt,” he said.