Sylvia June Atherton and The Trunk Where Her Body Was Discovered More Than 50 Years Ago

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Investigators in St. Petersburg, Florida, claim to have identified the city’s oldest and most prominent cold case victim after more than a half-century search. Authorities identified Sylvia June Atherton, a 41-year-old mother of five from Arizona, as the lady whose body was discovered in a wooden trunk 53 years ago on Halloween.

Sylvia June Atherton and the trunk where her body was discovered more than 50 years ago (Photo: St. Petersburg Police Dept.)


According to a press statement from the St. Petersburg Police Department, on Oct. 31, 1969, two officers discovered a black steamer trunk in the woods behind a restaurant in the 4200 block of 34th Street South.

Officers discovered a woman inside, wrapped in a huge plastic bag. She was partially clothed, had visible head injuries, and was strangled with a man’s Western-style bolo tie. The unidentified victim was laid to rest as “Jane Doe” in Memorial Park Cemetery.

The woman was dubbed the “Trunk Lady,” and the case was highlighted on numerous television episodes, articles, and cold case conferences.

Forty years after discovering the “Trunk Lady,” a doctor from the University of South Florida’s Department of Anthropology assisted authorities in exhuming her remains. Attempts to identify the victim using teeth and bone samples have proven difficult over the years due to their deteriorated state. A St. Petersburg police cold case detective recovered original samples of the victim’s hair and skin obtained during the victim’s initial autopsy earlier this year, which signified a breakthrough.

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The samples were forwarded to Texas-based Othram Labs for further examination. The scientists established a DNA profile of the victim using the original samples, identifying her as Atherton. DNA profiles from many of Atherton’s surviving children were used to authenticate her identity.

Investigators tracked down Atherton’s daughter, Syllen Gates, who now resides in California, to piece together the details of her untimely death. Gates was nine years old at the time her mother went missing.

Atherton departed Tucson with her husband, Stuart Brown, their 5-year-old daughter Kimberly Anne Brown, adult son Gary Sullivan, 19-year-old daughter Donna, and Donna’s husband, David Lindhurst, according to Gates.

Gates and her 11-year-old brother did not make the trek and were left in Tucson with Sylvia’s previous husband’s father.

Gary Sullivan later moved back to Tucson and began living with Gates and his younger brother.

Stuart Brown died in 1999 in Las Vegas. According to police, his court papers make no mention of a wife, and he never reported her missing.

While the identification of Sylvia Atherton is a huge step forward, many questions remain unresolved in the case. Police said they have yet to identify a suspect in Atherton’s murder and have been unable to contact her two daughters, who came with her to Chicago and may have key information in the case.

Gates, who appeared at a news conference with police on Tuesday, claimed that, aside from her mother, she had not heard from either of her sisters, who had moved to Chicago.

Authorities are asking anyone with information about their whereabouts or other details about the crime to call Detective Wallace Pavelski at 727-893-4823.

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