Florida Murder Victim Known Only As ‘Trunk Lady’ Finally Identified After 53 Years

Published May 31, 2023

On Halloween night in 1969, police in St. Petersburg opened a large case that had been dumped behind a restaurant and found the body of "Trunk Lady," now known to be an Arizona mother of five named Sylvia June Atherton.

Trunk Lady

St. Petersburg Police DepartmentOn October 31, 1969, teenagers reported seeing two men get out of a pickup truck and dump this large trunk in the woods behind a restaurant.

On Halloween in 1969, two police officers in St. Petersburg, Florida came upon a black steamer trunk in a wooded area behind a seafood restaurant. Inside, they found the dead body of a partially clothed woman wrapped in a plastic bag after being strangled with a man’s necktie.

For years, police attempted to identify her, but all efforts led to dead ends. For more than 50 years, police and locals alike referred to this Jane Doe simply as “Trunk Lady.”

Finally, advanced DNA testing has now uncovered the woman’s identity: a 41-year-old mother of five from Tucson, Arizona named Sylvia June Atherton.

Sylvia Atherton

St. Petersburg Police Department Sylvia Atherton (bottom right) with her daughter Donna.

According to an announcement from the St. Petersburg Police Department, Atherton’s body had initially been found in a horrific state. Clothed only in a pajama top, the woman had several injuries to her head and strangulation marks from a man’s Western-style bolo tie on her throat.

At the time, the only lead that police had were eyewitness accounts from local teenagers who reported seeing two men in a pickup truck dumping the trunk in the woods and driving off, but unfortunately this bit of information led investigators nowhere.

A lack of leads eventually led to her being buried at Memorial Park Cemetery under a gravestone that read “Jane Doe.” Atherton would remain there for 40 years.

Eventually, the brutal and mysterious nature of the crime caught the attention of researchers at the University of South Florida in 2010.

By February of that year, the research team got permission to exhume Atherton’s body and begin DNA testing. The team attempted to extract DNA from her teeth and bones, but they had degraded so much that testing was virtually impossible.

Meanwhile, various newspapers, articles, and even true crime television shows dug into Atherton’s case, but no new leads were uncovered.

Trunk Lady Sylvia June Atherton

St. Petersburg Police DepartmentAlthough police have now identified “Trunk Lady” as Sylvia June Atherton and know that she was strangled with a man’s bolo tie, they still have no idea who killed her or why.

But now, the St. Petersburg Police Department announced that they had discovered a sample of skin and hair from Atherton’s original autopsy and sent it to Othram labs in Texas. In April, the lab contacted the police department and told them that their “Trunk Lady” was Sylvia June Atherton.

With her name now in hand, Cold Case Detective Wally Pavelski tracked down her living relatives and got into contact with her daughter, Syllen Gates, who was nine at the time of her mother’s disappearance.

According to Gates, Atherton had left Tucson with her husband, Stuart Brown, and her children: five-year-old daughter Kimberly Anne Brown, adult son Gary Sullivan, adult daughter Donna and her husband, David Lindhurst.

The group reportedly left Tucson to move to Chicago, but evidently had some problems along the way.

Gary Sullivan eventually returned to Tucson by himself, and public records show that Stuart Brown died in Las Vegas in 1999 without reporting that he was ever married to Atherton. Brown also never reported his wife missing.

Even more mysterious is the fact that police have been unable to locate the children that traveled to Chicago with Atherton and her husband.

Gates, who stayed in Arizona with her father, told the Tampa Bay Times that she had never heard of the “Trunk Lady” and that she had no idea how her mother made it to St. Petersburg.

“It was so shocking,” she said. “We had no idea, none whatsoever.”

Police are now actively investigating the murder of Atherton and the disappearance of two of her children. So far, they have been unable to identify Atherton’s killer or how she even made it to Florida in the first place.

The authorities are now hoping that more witnesses or family members can help shed further light on this baffling case.

After learning about the “Trunk Lady” now known to be Sylvia June Atherton, discover more of modern history’s most chilling unsolved murders and cold cases.

Amber Morgan
Amber Morgan is an Editorial Fellow for All That's Interesting. She graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in political science, history, and Russian. Previously, she worked as a content creator for America House Kyiv, a Ukrainian organization focused on inspiring and engaging youth through cultural exchanges.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Morgan, Amber. "Florida Murder Victim Known Only As ‘Trunk Lady’ Finally Identified After 53 Years." AllThatsInteresting.com, May 31, 2023, https://allthatsinteresting.com/trunk-lady-sylvia-june-atherton. Accessed June 21, 2024.