‘Trunk lady’ cold case victim in Florida identified after 53 years

Author: CBS News Staff
Published: Updated:
Trunk found in wooded area, Oct. 31, 1969. ST. PETERSBURG POLICE DEPARTMENT

More than 53 years after two police officers found a body inside a black steamer trunk in a wooded area behind a restaurant, St. Petersburg, Florida’s oldest and most infamous cold case victim has been identified as Sylvia June Atherton, officials said Tuesday.

When the officers opened the trunk on Oct. 31, 1969, they found a woman’s body wrapped in a large plastic bag, according to a post on Facebook from the St. Petersburg Police Department. The victim had visible injuries to her head, and had been strangled with a man’s “Western-style Bolo tie,” police said. The woman was also partially clothed in a pajama top.

The victim was buried in a grave marked “Jane Doe” in Memorial Park Cemetery, and her body was eventually exhumed on Feb. 10, 2010, authorities said.

Throughout the years, investigators have tried multiple times to identify the victim using her teeth and bone samples, but officials said the samples were too degraded. Meanwhile, the “trunk lady” mystery was featured on television shows and cold case conferences.

This year, cold case detective Wally Pavelski discovered an original sample of the victim’s hair and skin taken during the original autopsy and sent to Othram Labs in Texas. In April, a DNA profile resulted from the sample, and officials said DNA profiles were obtained from her children to confirm her identity.

Atherton, of Tucson, Arizona, was 41 when she died, officials said. She was a mother of five.

Once Atherton was identified, Pavelski found her children and contacted her daughter, Syllen Gates, of California, who was 9 at the time of her mother’s disappearance.

Sylvia Atherton and daughter Donna. ST. PETERSBURG POLICE DEPARTMENT

According to her daughter, Atherton left Tucson with her husband, Stuart Brown, 5-year-old daughter Kimberly Anne Brown, adult son Gary Sullivan, adult daughter Donna and her husband, David Lindhurst, and headed to Chicago.

Gates and her brother, who was 11 at the time, were left in Tucson with their father from a previous marriage, officials said. Gary Sullivan also eventually returned to Tucson to live with them.

Pavelski determined that Stuart Brown died in 1999 in Las Vegas, but there was no mention of his wife in court records.

It is still unknown who killed Atherton. Other mysteries surround the case, including the whereabouts of the children who left for Chicago with Atherton.

The St. Petersburg Police Department is asking anyone with information regarding their whereabouts or regarding Atherton’s homicide to contact Pavelski at 727-893-4823.

Copyright Ā©2024 Fort Myers Broadcasting. All rights reserved.

This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written consent.