Investigators Think They've Solved Mystery of Buried Car

Cops: Mercedes unearthed in Atherton, Calif., may have been part of insurance fraud scheme
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 4, 2022 7:20 AM CDT
Updated Nov 6, 2022 4:20 PM CST
Investigators Think They've Solved Mystery of Buried Car
On Oct. 21, Atherton police continue to investigate the discovery of a vehicle found buried in the yard of a home in Atherton, Calif.   (Julia Prodis Sulek/Bay Area News Group via AP)

Three decades ago, John Lew's 1991 Mercedes-Benz 500SL convertible was reported stolen to police in Palo Alto, California—a fact that may be the missing clue as to why the car was found buried last month on the property of a mansion in nearby Atherton. NBC News reports that the car found under 4 to 5 feet of dirt may have been hidden "for insurance purposes," as noted in a "suspicious circumstance" release from the Atherton Police Department. Although cadaver dogs brought to the scene sniffed out "possible human remains," the vehicle was towed away to be examined further and neither cadaver dogs nor ground-penetrating radar could find any remains at the excavation site.

Lew used to own the property where the car was discovered; he sold it in 2009. It's his past, including a string of arrests for fraud and homicide, that may have led investigators to surmise he'd buried the car for the insurance money, per NBC Bay Area. Lew was convicted of fraud in 2000 after he gave $50,000 in jewelry and cash to what turned out to be undercover agents; he believed he was hiring them to sink his $1.2 million yacht. Before that, he'd been found guilty in the 1965 shooting death of a lover—a conviction that was subsequently overturned—and was thrown behind bars in 1977 for three years for attempted murder.

In the case of the Mercedes, Lew collected $87,000 on it after it was reported stolen, says San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, per the Mercury News. "I've seen ... many strange cases over the 45 years I've been in the business—this one's in the very upper echelon," Wagstaffe says, per NBC. Still, he acknowledges that they don't yet know for sure if insurance fraud was what led to the Benz's burial. "It may be a fraud case, may be foul play," he notes. "Hey, it could just be an eccentric who thought it would be fun to bury a car in the ground." Cops say they're still investigating, but they're not going to be able to get any insight from Lew: He died in 2015, at the age of 77. (Read more insurance fraud stories.)

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