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St. Petersburg, Fla., police identify “Trunk Lady” as Sylvia Atherton



On Halloween night in 1969, police officers in St. Petersburg, Fla., responded to the woods behind a restaurant to check out a suspiciously placed trunk and saw it nestled within the greenery.

Upon unlocking the trunk’s silver latches, they found a woman dead inside, wrapped in plastic. She’d been strangled with a tie.

At the time, investigators weren’t able to identify her and couldn’t find anyone who matched her description who had been reported missing. Her name remained a mystery in what became widely known in the area as the “Trunk Lady” case, which police thought they might never solve, St. Petersburg Police Assistant Chief Michael Kovacsev said.

But on Tuesday, more than 50 years later, police announced they’d identified the woman as Sylvia June Atherton after they discovered a hair sample this year that had never been tested. She was 41 when she died and left behind five children, police said.

Police connected with one of her daughters, Syllen Gates, who was 5 years old the last time she saw her mother and spent decades not knowing why she hadn’t reached out or where she was.

“It was shocking because it had been so many years, and we had no idea what happened to her,” Gates said at a news conference Tuesday.


The mystery is one of only a few cold cases at the St. Petersburg Police Department that date back to the 1960s. The last surviving detective originally assigned to the case, Paul Drolet, now 87, also attended Tuesday’s news conference.

In 1969, officers were sent out after receiving a call about two men arriving in a pickup truck, unloading the trunk and leaving the area, Kovacsev said.

At the time, detectives, including Drolet, had to make phone calls and write letters to different agencies in the region to see if anyone who had been reported missing matched the description of the body they found.

They weren’t able to find a match then — or in the decades that followed as detectives kept the case on their radar.

“After years of trying, it just never got any traction,” Kovacsev said.

The body was exhumed in 2010 as part of an effort by the police department to identify victims known only as Jane or John Doe.

But, Kovacsev said, the DNA was too degraded. The case went cold again.


Last year, hopes of identifying the woman were renewed when a detective looking through the case again discovered a sample from the original autopsy that had not been tested.

Lab analysis revealed a DNA profile that led police to identify her as Sylvia June Atherton, a woman who had moved to St. Petersburg from Tucson a few years before she was found dead.

“She has a name now after 53 years,” Kovacsev said Tuesday. “Her family does have the closure.”

Police have yet to identify a suspect in Atherton’s death. After determining her name, they located some of her children — including Gates — but are still looking for two of her other daughters.

Atherton left Tucson in 1965 with her husband, one of her sons, one daughter who was around 4 years old, and another daughter who was around 19 and married with a child. Gates and a second brother were left with their father from Atherton’s previous marriage, according to police. The husband Atherton was married to when she moved to Florida, who died in 1999, did not file a missing-person report for Atherton after she disappeared in St. Petersburg, police said, adding that they found no mention of his wife in court records they searched.

Atherton’s son who had left Tucson with his mother later returned to live with Gates and the other brother, but the siblings in Tuscon never heard from their mother or sisters again.

Over the years, Gates tried to use ancestry websites to find her sisters, but “there was just nothing,” she said on Tuesday. She’d assumed that her mother had died but did not know how or where.


And before St. Petersburg police called her recently, she’d never heard about the “Trunk Lady” case.

On Tuesday, Gates thanked the detectives and other people in the community who were working to get her family’s story to the public.

She’s holding out hope that it might reach her sisters, that they’ll be reunited after all these years — a small spark of joy that could come out of the tragic circumstances surrounding her mother’s death.

“It would be a blessing to my family,” Gates said. “And an end to this ordeal.”

Source: Washington Post


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