The ex-owner had a history of arrests for murder, fraud

Atherton Police on Friday continued a thorough search of a 1990s Mercedes convertible that appears to have been buried for more than 30 years at a residence in the affluent town of Atherton.

Dogs trained to find dead bodies gave “slight” indications that human remains might be in the car, but officials said Friday afternoon that none had yet been located.

While the reaction could be attributed to human remains, the dogs could also react to any combination of blood, old bones or human vomit, police said.

Officials said they believe the owner of the vehicle is deceased, but would not confirm any other links between the owner of the car and a former owner of the house, Johnny Bocktune Lew, who has a long history of alleged crimes. , with past arrests for murder and insurance. fraud, records show.

“We heard that name come up,” said Atherton Police Commander Dan Larsen, but added that police had not determined whether the inquiry would become a criminal investigation.

The current owners of the estate at 351 Stockbridge Ave. – which includes a mansion, swimming pool and tennis court – were unaware that the vehicle was 4 or 5 feet underground. It was salvaged from the backyard by contractors working on a landscaping project.

The current owners could not be reached for comment.

Police did not confirm the specific model or color of the Mercedes Benz, but said it was a convertible with the roof down and filled with unused concrete bags. Officials said the car was reported stolen by the Palo Alto Police Department in September 1992.

In 1999, Lew was accused of trying to hire people to sink a yacht worth $1.2 million to profit from insurance. The men he hired were plainclothes police as part of an undercover operation, authorities said.

Lew, who was then in his 60s, told undercover cops to take the 56-foot craft called the Corwel “west of the Golden Gate Bridge in international waters and put it on the bottom,” Scott Edelen, state insurance spokesman. Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush said at the time. “He was looking to profit from the loss.”

Investigators hid the yacht and told Lew they had sunk it. He allegedly paid them $30,000 in cash and $20,000 worth of gold watches, while telling American Yachts Limited – which insured the boat – that it had been stolen.

San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe said Lew was never prosecuted for a crime in the county and that the San Joaquin District Attorney’s Office handled the fraud case. insurance. The bureau did not return a request for comment.

According to public records and interviews, Lew lived with his family at the property in the 1990s, when Atherton Police believe the car was buried.

Lew grew up in Hong Kong, where as a young man he served for a few years as a police officer before moving to the United States in 1959. Two years later, Lew married a cousin in South Carolina, and the couple first lived in San Francisco. then Los Angeles County.

Lew enrolled at El Camino Junior College in Los Angeles County, and in 1964 met another student named Karen Gervasi. The two were later moved to Long Beach State and fell in love, although Lew is still married.

In 1965, Gervasi suffered a fatal gunshot wound at Lew’s apartment in Los Angeles County. The following year, Lew was found guilty of murdering the 21-year-old, despite his claim that she had accidentally committed suicide.

He spent time in jail before the California Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 1968, citing hearsay evidence that should not have been allowed at trial.

A house at 351 Stockbridge Ave. where a buried car was discovered is pictured Friday, October 21, 2022 in Atherton, Calif.

Noah Berger, Independent/Special for The Chronicle

Case files describe Lew’s defense: He said at the time that Gervasi noticed a pair of earmuffs he used at shooting ranges, and it led to a conversation about weapons to fire – and to Gervasi expressing a desire to shoot a pistol.

Lew said he handed his gun to Gervasi as they sat in a large chair in his home. As he bent down to pick up a fallen ammunition magazine, he said, he heard a shot. Gervasi, who was unable to give a statement to police who responded, died shortly afterwards in a hospital.

In 1977, Lew was convicted of two counts of attempted murder, also in Los Angeles County, and served three years in prison.

Reached by phone Friday morning, Lew’s daughter, Jacq Searle, 34, said she was shocked to learn that a car had been buried on the property where she had lived with her parents. She said her father built the house.

Searle spent her adult years trying to “overcome” the pain and dysfunction in her family life, she said.

“I feel like we all grew up with a number of traumas at home,” Searle said. Her parents divorced after her father was released from prison. “My dad definitely had some emotional issues…it wouldn’t surprise me, just because of how sketchy my dad was.”

Searle said she spent her childhood and teenage years visiting her father as he moved in and out of prison. He died in 2015 while living in Washington after suffering from lung cancer, she said.

The Lew family sold the 1.63 acre property, which includes a 12,000 square foot home, in 2014 for $7.3 million, property records show. The current owners bought it in 2020 for $15 million.

Annie Vainshtein and Joel Umanzor are the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle. E-mail:
[email protected] [email protected] Twitter: @annievain @jr_umanzor

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