St. Petersburg, Florida police identify slain “trunk lady” as Sylvia June Atherton

They called her the Lady of the Trunk.

It was found in 1969 in a steamer trunk in the woods behind the Oyster Bar in St. Petersburg, Florida. She had been strangled with a bolo tie and she was wearing only a pajama top.

On Halloween, two children watched a truck roll over and two men pull out the trunk and dump it. Detectives called to the site opened the black trunk and found what would become a five-decade mystery.

Newspapers and television stations ran stories about the Trunk Lady in hopes of uncovering a lead to her identity and the name of her killer, but nothing materialized and the case went cold.

But on Tuesday, the police announced that they had finally solved at least part of the case.

“After 53 years, Trunk Lady finally has a name,” said Deputy Chief Mike Kovacsev, identifying her as Sylvia June Atherton, a remarried mother of five who disappeared from Chicago when she was 41.

The break came in the same way that many other cold cases have been solved in recent years, with advances in DNA testing and genealogy research.

Police exhumed Trunk Lady in 2010 but found that the DNA in her remains was too degraded to provide any useful information. Then last year, a detective found an original tissue sample from the autopsy, including a hair sample that had never been tested.

That was turned over to a private lab that works with cold case investigators. He obtained a DNA profile of the sample and followed the genetic roadmap to create a family tree.

Police contacted one of the people believed to be Trunk Lady’s children, Syllen Gates, and learned that their mother was missing.

“We had no idea what happened to him,” Gates told WFLA.

According to Florida police, Atherton lived in Tucson, Arizona, with her five children, but left for Chicago in 1965 with her second husband, Stuart Brown, and three of the children: two daughters and their adult son.

Brown died in Las Vegas in 1999 without ever reporting his wife’s absence; he did not include her in a bankruptcy filing before her death. Police also said the trunk of the steamer belonged to the couple.

“There are still unanswered questions in this case. Who killed Sylvia Atherton? St. Petersburg police said in a press release. “In addition, the other two children who went to Chicago with Sylvia, little Kimberly and Donna Lindhurst, 20, have not been located and may have additional information about the case.”

Kovacsev said the department hopes someone will come forward with more information on the case that will help tie up the loose ends.

“We may not always be able to advance an arrest, but we must show that we care,” he said.