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Arizona woman identified as 'Trunk Lady,' whose body was found in a Florida field 53 years ago

Atherton's body was found in a large black trunk on Halloween Day in 1969
St Pete cold case Trunk Lady.png
Posted at 6:07 AM, May 31, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-02 01:30:05-04

ST. PETERSBURG, FL — More than 50 years after the body of an unknown woman was found in a trunk in a field in St. Pete, Florida, subsequently dubbed the "Trunk Lady" case, police said they've identified her.

Sylvia June Atherton was 41 years old when she was killed, police said. She left behind five children and was from Tucson, Arizona, with seemingly no ties to St. Pete.

Atherton's body was found in a large black trunk on Halloween Day in 1969. Police said two kids told officers at the time that they saw two men pull up in a pickup, put the trunk in the field, and leave.

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Atherton was found wrapped in plastic inside the trunk. Police say she had visible injuries to her head and had been strangled with a man's Western-style Bolo tie. She was partially clothed in a pajama top.

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Assistant Chief Mike Kovacsev said detectives at the time searched for missing person reports that matched the description of the body found but after years of trying, the case went cold.

Kovacsev said in 2010, as part of an effort to identify unknown victims, the police department exhumed Atherton's body to try to get a DNA sample. She was buried as a Jane Doe.

The attempt was unsuccessful, Kovacsev said, because her remains were too degraded.

In late 2022 and early 2023, Kovacsev said detectives went back through the case again to see if anything was missed. Kovacsev said detectives found hair that was never tested and sent it to a private lab, which was able to get a DNA profile from it.

The lab was able to run the profile through a genealogy database which led authorities to identify Atherton and find some of her living relatives.

Kovacsev said Atherton left Arizona with her husband Stuart Brown, her 5-year-old daughter Kimberly Anne Brown, her adult son Gary Sullivan, adult daughter Donna and her husband David Lindhurst, and went to Chicago.

Authorities said Atherton's 9-year-old daughter Syllen and 11-year-old son were left with their father from a previous marriage in Arizona. Gary Sullivan eventually returned to Arizona to live with them.

ABC15 spoke with Syllen, who is now hoping to find her two sisters. She last spoke with them around the same time her mother disappeared.

"There's some relief, and then there's Pandora's box again because I have, I know where my mother is... but now, I have a whole other part of my family that I have to worry about now. Before they were just missing, now it could be worse," said Syllen.

Her eldest sister, Donna Marie Lindhurst, would be around 75 years old today and was last known to be in St. Petersburg. The St. Petersburg Police Department is asking anyone with information regarding her whereabouts, or regarding the homicide, to contact Detective Wallace Pavelski at 727-893-4823.

Kovacsev said police don't have information on who killed her at this time.

"This is where like amateur sleuths will come in," Kovacsev said. "This is where we're asking for assistance to kind of put the pieces together."

Kovacsev said the trunk Atherton was found in belonged to her. Her husband Stuart died in 1999 and never reported her missing, authorities said, and didn't list her in any court records.

"You can see there's some inferences there that we kind of have to fill in the gaps," Kovacsev said. "We want to bring forward the fact that she has a name now after 53 years, her family does have the closure, and that's the closure we're trying to bring forward."

Kovacsev added, "We may not always be able to bring an arrest forward, but we need to be able to show that we still care."

Atherton's daughter, Syllen Gates said it's a relief to finally know her mother has been found.

"A sad relief that they finally found her and she, of course, this was a terrible way to die," said Gates, who was 9 years old at the time her mom disappeared.

Police said they've been unable to locate Atherton's daughters Kimberly Brown, who was 5 at the time, and Donna Lindhurst, who was 20 at the time.

Anyone with information is asked to contact Detective Wallace Pavelski at 727-893-4823.

Two detectives within the St. Pete police department are tasked to solely look into cold cases.

Kovacsev said, on average, the department has about 200 open cases each year.