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New York Post

‘Trunk Lady’ ID’d by police 53 years after being found in Florida woods on Halloween night

By David Propper,


A woman who was dubbed “Trunk Lady” after being found dead in the Florida woods on Halloween night more than 50 years ago was finally identified this week as an Arizona mother of five.

Sylvia June Atherton was confirmed to be the woman whose strangled corpse was discovered inside a black steamer trunk dumped in the woods behind a restaurant 53 years ago, according to the St. Petersburg Police .

Atherton was found partially clothed and wrapped in a large plastic bag with blows to her head on Oct. 31, 1969.

Investigators were unable to determine who the woman was at the time and the unsolved murder became one of the city’s oldest and infamous cold cases.

Atherton, who was strangled with a Bolo tie, was 41 years old when she was killed. Her body was buried in a grave marked “Jane Doe” before it was exhumed in 2010.

St. Petersburg Police Assistant Chief Michael Kovacsev said during a press conference two juveniles witnessed two men place the trunk in the woods before leaving. There were no ties between Atherton and the Florida city, he said.
Sylvia Atherton, right, and her daughter Donna are seen in an undated photo released by the St. Petersburg Police Department in Florida.
St. Petersburg Police Department

One of the victim’s daughters, Syllen Gates, said she was shocked when police alerted her about the case and never heard of the “Trunk Lady” before then.

“We had no idea what happened to her,” she said during a Tuesday news conference streamed by Tampa Bay 10 , adding. “It’s a relief, a sad relief.”

Police said Gates told them Atherton left Tucson, Arizona for Chicago with her husband Stuart Brown, her five-year-old daughter Kimberly Anne Brown, adult son Gary Sullivan, and adult daughter Donna and her husband David Lindhurst a few years before her death.

Syllen, who was 9 when her mother disappeared, stayed behind with her and her 11-year-old brother and their father. Ex-husband Gary Sullivan later rejoined them, police said.

Police sent the victim’s hair and skin taken during the original autopsy to Othram Labs in Texas for advanced DNA testing that helped determine Atherton was the slain woman.
Trunk found in wooded area, October 31, 1969, is seen in a photo released by the St. Petersburg Police Department.
St. Petersburg Police Department

Over the last five decades, police tried multiple times to pinpoint the woman’s identity through teeth and bone samples, but both were too degraded.

Brown, the victim’s husband, died in 1999 in Las Vegas, police said. There was no mention of his wife in any bankruptcy records. She was also never reported missing, police said.

The trunk was also the property of Atherton’s family, Kovasev said.

“You can see there are some inferences there that we kind of have to fill in the gap,” he said.

The two daughters who were with Atherton in Chicago have yet to be located, but police are seeking them out because they said the two might have more information about their mother’s death.

“We’d like the case to be solved, we’d like to find out who did this,” Gates said. “Also to find my sisters … we’re concerned about what happened to them.”

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