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Car found buried at California mansion was Mercedes Benz reported stolen in 1992; homeowner was arrested for murder, fraud

Crews finish excavating car buried in Atherton backyard
Crews finish excavating car buried in Atherton backyard 00:56

Crews fully excavated a car that police said was buried in the backyard of a Northern California mansion 30 years ago and found no human remains, authorities said Monday.

The convertible Mercedes Benz filled with bags of unused concrete was discovered last week by landscapers in the affluent town of Atherton in Silicon Valley. Cadaver dogs brought to the scene made "slight" notifications of possible human remains on three separate occasions, police said in a statement.

Atherton buried car excavation
After days of digging, the car was completely unearthed this weekend, CBS Bay Area reported. CBS Bay Area

Atherton Police Cmdr. Daniel Larsen said the dogs could have been reacting to human remains, old bones, blood, vomit, or a combination of those things.

"They are going through a landscaping project, so it's quite possible it could be worker who got cut and dripped some blood on the ground. We just don't know what the dogs are reacting to until we discover it." Larsen said.

The car was removed from the home by a tow truck and transported Saturday to the San Mateo County Crime Lab for further inspection and processing. On Sunday, ground penetrating radar was used to examine the scene, the department said.

"This examination did not reveal anything unusual or suspicious at the scene and no human remains were located," it said.

"This concluded our on-scene investigation," the department added.

Police have not said who owned the car, which was reported stolen in nearby Palo Alto in September 1992, or who might have buried it in the backyard of the sprawling mansion. Police said Monday they had no further comment.

Investigators believe the car was buried 4 to 5 feet (1.2 to 1.5 meters) deep in the home's backyard sometime in the 1990s - before the current owners bought the home.

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

Authorities wouldn't say if investigators believe the vehicle was registered to Johnny Lew, who built the home and lived there with his family in the 1990s. Lew had a history of arrests for murder, attempted murder and insurance fraud,

KRON-TV reported Monday that the car has a personalized license plate that includes "Lew."

Lew died in Washington state in 2015, a year after the family sold the house, his daughter, Jacq Searle, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Lew was arrested in the late 1990s for insurance fraud after he hired undercover police officers to take a $1.2 million yacht "out west of the Golden Gate Bridge into international waters and put it on the bottom," the newspaper reported.

In the 1960s, Lew was found guilty of murdering a 21-year-old woman in Los Angeles County. He was released from prison after the California Supreme Court reversed the conviction in 1968, citing hearsay evidence that should not have been allowed at trial. Records showed that in 1977 Lew was convicted of two counts of attempted murder, also in Los Angeles County, and spent three years in prison, the Chronicle reported, citing court records.

The activity and large law enforcement presence has drawn the attention of neighbors in the affluent town located in the northern edge of the Silicon Valley, CBS Bay Area reported.

"We're just waiting to hear what's in the car. I think he probably just buried the car for insurance money," said neighbor Kathy Consani.

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

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