Police found an unknown body in a trunk on Halloween 53 years ago. Thanks to DNA testing, the ‘trunk lady’ now has a name

After police found a body in a black steamer trunk in a wooded area in Florida 53 years ago, the mystery of the “trunk lady” became a cold case that captured the attention of the public for decades. Using DNA evidence, police have now identified the victim as Sylvia June Atherton, a mother of five, from Tucson, Arizona.

On Halloween 1969, St. Petersburg police were called to a wooded area behind what was then a restaurant named the Oyster Bar, Assistant Chief Michael Kovacsev said at a news conference Tuesday. He said two children reported seeing two White men in a pickup truck unload the trunk in the field and leave.

When the officers opened the trunk, they found a woman’s body, wrapped in a large plastic bag, police said in a statement. She had visible injuries to her head and was partially clothed in a pajama top. She had been strangled with a bolo tie, police said.

Investigators were unable to identify the woman, and she was buried as “Jane Doe” in St. Petersburg’s Memorial Park Cemetery.

The mystery of the “trunk lady,” as she came to be known, captured the attention of crime shows, journalists and amateur sleuths over the years, but even after her body was exhumed in 2010, detectives were unable to crack the case. The teeth and bone samples they collected were too degraded, police said.

When a sample of the victim’s hair and skin taken during an original autopsy turned up this year, St. Petersburg Cold Case Detective Wally Pavelski sent it to a lab for DNA testing and police were soon able to identify Atherton. They say she was 41 when she died.

“She has a name now after 53 years. Her family has closure,” Kovacsev said.

A family still searching for answers

Pavelski tracked down Atherton’s daughter, Syllen Gates.

“It was shocking, because it had been so many years,” Gates said at the news conference via a video call from California, according to a video of the event posted by 10 Tampa Bay. “We had no idea what happened to her.”

Gates was about 5 years old when her mother left Tucson for Chicago in 1965, she said. Police said Atherton left with her husband, Stuart Brown, and three of her children: Kimberly Anne Brown, adult son Gary Sullivan and adult daughter Donna Lindhurst – along with Lindhurt’s husband David Lindhurst.

Gates and her 11-year-old brother stayed in Tucson with their father, Atherton’s ex-husband.

“We thought we would hear from them at some time, but life goes on. I was young,” Gates said. “It’s a sad relief to have finally found her. Of course, it’s a terrible way to die – just a few years after she left the state.”

Gary Sullivan eventually returned to Tucson. Gates used ancestry.com to try to find her mother and sisters, with no luck. She said she had not heard of the “trunk lady” case until Pavelski reached out to her.

Stuart Brown died in 1999 in Las Vegas. He never listed Atherton as missing and did not include her name on bankruptcy filings, Kovacsev said.

While police now know her name, they still don’t know who killed Atherton.

“This is where, like, amateur sleuths will come in.” Kovacsev said. “This is where we’re asking for assistance to kind of put the pieces together.”

Police say the two daughters who left Tucson with Atherton have yet to be located. Kimberly Anne Brown, who was around 5 years old at the time of the disappearance and Donna Lindhurst, who was around 20 years old, may have information that could help, police said.

“We’d like the case to be solved. We’d like to find out who did this – also to find my sisters,” Gates said. “That’s my hope. Maybe this gets out, maybe they’ll hear and maybe we can locate them.”

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