A mystery woman, known only as “Trunk Lady” since her death 53 years ago, has been identified through DNA as a 41-year-old Arizona mother of five.
St. Petersburg police named the woman who was discovered stuffed in a suitcase in a Florida field on Halloween Day 1969 after being strangled with a bolo tie as Sylvia June Atherton.
Police say the investigation began more than half a century ago when two teenagers said they saw two white men pull a suitcase from a pickup truck on the 4200 block at 32nd Street South, then the Oyster Bar.
“Trunk Lady”: The unsolved case that has occupied police for 53 years has finally been partially solved by identifying the victim as Sylvia June Atherton
The unidentified body of Sylvia June Atherton was found in a suitcase in a field in St. Petersburg, Florida on October 31, 1969
When officers arrived at the scene, they found the plastic-wrapped body of a woman in the trunk, wearing nothing but a pajama top.
They investigated but found no leads, and the incident became one of the oldest cold cases in St. Petersburg.
This lasted until Tuesday, when police announced they had identified “Trunk Lady” thanks to DNA breakthroughs more than half a century later – although her killer is still unknown.
Deputy boss Mike Kovacsev told a press conference: “After 53 years, the suitcase lady finally has a name.”
“We were also able to do some DNA research and locate some of their family members.”
“I would like to point out that it is no longer Trunk Lady, her name is Sylvia June Atherton.”
“She was killed when she was 41, has five children, and was from the Tuscan Arizona area.”
Syllen Gates, one of “Trunk Lady’s” daughters, was tracked down by police and was speaking at Tuesday’s news conference
The suitcase in which Atherton’s body was found on Halloween Day 1969
The pajama top that was the only piece of clothing Atherton was wearing when her body was found in the trunk 53 years ago
As with many other cold cases, the trail was thanks to advances in DNA testing.
Kovacsev said Atherton’s body was exhumed in 2010 but her remains were too degraded to provide any clues – but last year renewed hope came when a detective found a hair sample that had never been tested.
Analysis of the hair at a private lab revealed that the DNA profile matched Atherton, and police were able to locate one of her daughters – Syllen Gates.
Gates also spoke at the press conference via Zoom call and said she had never heard of Trunk Lady until police called her to identify her missing mother and that she was “shocked” by the news.
Gates, who was nine when her mother went missing, said, “It was shocking because it had been so many years that we had no idea what had happened to her…”
“It’s a relief, a sad relief, that they finally found her – although of course that was a horrible way to die.”
St. Petersburg Deputy Chief Mike Kovacsev said the Trunk Lady case had “confused” police for more than half a century.
Sylvia June Atherton (right) and daughter Donna
Syllen Gates said she had never heard of “Trunk Lady” and was “shocked” when police identified her as her missing mother
Atherton moved to Chicago from Arizona in 1965 with her second husband, Stuart Brown, and three of their children — two daughters and an adult son, according to police.
Gates said she hasn’t seen these siblings and that she hopes identifying their mother as a trunk lady will result in them being reunited after more than half a century.
She cried as she thanked the police, who had identified her mother, at the end of the call.
Regarding the extended family, Kovacsev said Brown died He died in Las Vegas in 1999 without ever reporting his wife missing, and he did not list her on a bankruptcy filing prior to his death.
He said: “We still have no decision on who killed her. This is where amateur detectives will come into play. We ask for help to put the pieces together.”
“We know that suitcase was her property, we know that she remarried, we know that her then-husband died in 1999 and never listed her as missing.”
“You can see there are implied conclusions that we need to fill in the blanks, but what we want to put forward above all is that now after 53 years she has a name – her family is closed.”