(ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.) — More than 50 years ago, a woman was found dead inside a trunk that had been left in a field in St. Petersburg, Florida. Her identity has remained a mystery — until now.
“This is a case that has perplexed the department for a long time,” Assistant Chief Mike Kovacsev of the St. Petersburg Police Department said during a press conference on Tuesday. “This was always known as the ‘trunk lady’ case.”
The woman has been identified as Sylvia June Atherton, 41, of Tucson, Arizona. She left behind five children, according to Kovacsev.
Atherton’s body was found wrapped in plastic inside the trunk on Oct. 31, 1969, which was Halloween. Witnesses told police at the time that they saw two men arrive in a pickup truck and place the trunk in the field before driving away, Kovacsev said.
For years, detectives searched for missing person reports that matched the description of the victim, but to no avail. The case went cold and Atherton’s body was buried as a “Jane Doe” in a local cemetery, according to Kovacsev.
In 2010, as part of an effort to identify unknown victims, police exhumed Atherton’s body to try to get a DNA sample. But the remains were “too degraded and, again, the case went cold,” Kovacsev said.
In late 2022 and early 2023, detectives revisited the case and found a hair sample that was never tested. They sent the sample to a private laboratory, which was able to produce a DNA profile. The lab was then able to run the DNA profile through a genealogy database, which led police to identify Atherton and locate some of her living relatives, according to Kovacsev.
“That is one of the things I want to highlight with cold cases — it takes persistence,” Kovacsev said. “It takes going back and looking at things that may not have been available to individuals back in 1969. But more importantly, … what could we have missed.”
Detectives learned that Atherton had five children and seemingly no ties to St. Petersburg, which is part of Florida’s Tampa Bay area. Prior to her death, she left Tucson, Arizona with her children and took two of them to her ex-husband in Chicago. She was never seen by her children again, Kovacsev said.
“We don’t have the resolution on who killed her yet,” Kovacsev noted. “This is where like amateur sleuths will come in. This is where we’re asking for assistance to kind of put the pieces together.”
Detectives now know that the trunk Atherton’s body was found in belonged to her. They also know that she was remarried and her husband never reported her missing. He died in 1999, according to Kovacsev.
“So you can see there’s some inferences there that we have to kind of fill in the gaps,” he added. “But mainly, we want to bring forward the fact that she has a name now after 53 years.”
Atherton’s daughter, Syllen Gates, told Tampa ABC affiliate WFTS-TV that she feels “relief.”
“A sad relief that they finally found her,” Gates said, “and, of course, this was a terrible way to die.”
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