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Who is the Trunk Lady?: Arizona Mom’s Body Identified in Florida After 53 Years
Sylvia Atherton, 41, was strangled to death with a man’s Western-style bolo tie in 1969.
A woman who was fatally strangled and whose body was found in a trunk in a wooded area in Florida on Halloween more than half-a-century ago has officially been identified.
On Oct. 31, 1969, an unknown woman’s corpse, partially clothed in pajamas, turned up in a clothing trunk that had been dumped behind a St. Petersburg restaurant. The victim’s remains were wrapped in a large plastic bag. Injuries were visible on the woman’s head. An autopsy later revealed she’d been strangled to death with a man’s Western-style bolo tie.
She was later buried at a local cemetery at a grave marked "Jane Doe." For decades, the identity of the mystery victim, who police dubbed the “Trunk Lady,” bamboozled investigators. Locally, she was St. Petersburg’s oldest — and likely the best known — cold case victim.
On Tuesday, however, St. Petersburg Police announced they’d finally identified the cold case victim as Sylvia June Atherton, a 41-year-old mother of five from Arizona.
In 2010, Atherton’s body was exhumed as part of ongoing investigative efforts to identify her. Over the years, investigators attempted — to no avail — to identify her multiple times using teeth and bone samples. Earlier this year, cold case detectives uncovered an original sample of Atherton’s hair. St. Petersburg police then sent the forensic sample to Texas-based private DNA lab, Othram Inc. Othram ultimately developed a DNA profile for Atherton. Investigators subsequently used DNA profiles from her surviving children to confirm the “Trunk Lady’s” remains belonged to Atherton.
However, little is known of Atherton’s killer, police say. A suspect in Atherton’s murder hasn’t been officially identified. For now, authorities are largely relying on other family members’ accounts to uncover what led to Atherton’s demise.
One of Atherton’s children, Syllen Gates, provided crucial background context to investigators surrounding events of her mother’s disappearance. Gates, who was nine years old at the time her mother vanished, told law enforcement that Atherton departed Tucson, Arizona and left for Chicago with her husband Stuart Brown.
The couple also took their five-year-old daughter Kimberly Anne Brown, adult son Gary Sullivan, adult daughter Donna and her husband David Lindhurst. Syllen Gates and her 11-year-old brother were left in Tucson with their father from an earlier marriage. Atherton’s son Gary later came back to Arizona to live with them.
Stuart Brown died in 1999 in Las Vegas, authorities said. However, Atherton’s name is absent from any court records tied to him. Police are still working to track down a couple of Atherton’s children.
“There are still unanswered questions in this case,” the St. Petersburg Police Department said in a statement on Tuesday. “The other two children who left for Chicago with Sylvia, little Kimberly, and 20-year-old Donna Lindhurst, haven't been located and they may have additional information regarding the case."
Anyone with additional information pertaining to the case or the whereabouts of Atherton’s surviving children is urged to contact Detective Wallace Pavelski at the St. Petersburg Police Department by calling 727-893-4823.