Victim In St. Petersburg 'Trunk Lady' Cold Case Identified After 53 Years

A woman’s dead body was discovered in a trunk in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Halloween in 1969. After 53 years, police have identified the victim as mother-of-five Sylvia June Atherton.

The body of Sylvia June Atherton, pictured here smiling, was found in a trunk in a wooded area on Oct. 31, 1969 but not identified until 2023.

A woman’s dead body was discovered in a trunk in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Halloween in 1969. After 53 years, police have identified the victim as mother-of-five Sylvia June Atherton.

Photo by: St. Petersburg Police Department

St. Petersburg Police Department

Back on the night of Oct. 31, 1969, a woman’s body was found in a trunk in a wooded area behind a restaurant in St. Petersburg, Florida. When police opened the trunk, they discovered the woman had head injuries and had been strangled with a Western-style men’s bolo tie. She was partially clothed in a pajama top and wrapped in plastic, according to a Facebook post from the St. Petersburg Police Department.

Despite a thorough investigation, nobody was able to identify the woman. She was buried in a grave as a “Jane Doe” in Memorial Park Cemetery in St. Petersburg. Investigators tried to identify her several times using multiple methods over the years, but they had no luck.

The case went cold, and the victim became known as the “Trunk Lady” because of where her body was found. The case was a topic of great public interest, and it was featured in television shows, true crime documentaries and podcasts, many news articles, and cold case conferences.

Now, after 53 years, the “Trunk Lady” finally has a name. She has been identified as Sylvia June Atherton. At the time of her death, she was a 41-year-old mother of five who came from Tucson, Arizona, reported The Washington Post.

A photograph of the trunk found in a wooded area on Oct. 31, 1969.

A photograph of the trunk in which a woman's body was found on Oct. 31, 1969.

Photo by: St. Petersburg Police Department

St. Petersburg Police Department

A photograph of the trunk in which a woman's body was found on Oct. 31, 1969.

Identifying Sylvia was the result of over five decades of police work. Her body had been exhumed on Feb. 10, 2010, but the teeth and bone samples that were gathered were too degraded, according to CBS News. Then, in early 2023, cold case detective Wally Pavelski discovered a sample of the victim’s skin and hair that had been preserved from her autopsy, and he sent the sample to Othram, a Texas lab that uses forensic genetic genealogy to help solve cold cases.

In April 2023, a DNA profile was created from the sample, and that went through a DNA database. That led investigators to identify some of her relatives, and police got samples from some of her children that were ultimately used to make a definite identification.

“It was shocking, because it had been so many years. We had no idea what happened to her,” Syllen Gates, one of Atherton's daughters, said in a press conference broadcast by 10 Tampa Bay.

Gates helped detectives fill in some of the blanks about her mother. She said Atherton left her and her 11-year-old brother with their father in Tucson before moving to Chicago. Gates was only nine when her mother left, reported NBC News.

Atherton moved to Chicago with her husband, her five-year-old daughter Kimberly Anne Brown, two adult children (Donna and Gary), her son-in-law David Lindhurst, according to Gates.

Stuart Brown, the victim’s husband at the time of her death, died in 1999, and he never reported Sylvia missing. There also wasn’t any mention of his wife in his court records.

Despite the victory of Sylvia’s identification, many questions remain, and the murder is still unsolved. Police hope to speak to her other two children, Kimberly and Donna, in hopes that they might provide some information that can be helpful.

CNN reports that the St. Petersburg Police Department is asking for the public’s help in solving this still-perplexing case. Anyone who has information about the murder or the whereabouts of Atherton’s other two children is asked to contact Detective Wallace Pavelski at 727-893-4823.

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