"Trunk Lady" Doe identified after five decades

June 06, 2023

The long-unidentified body of a woman discovered in St. Petersburg, Florida on Halloween of 1969 has recently been identified with the help of genetic genealogy- but her killer has yet to be identified.


On the afternoon of November 6, 1969, a funeral was held for an unidentified female murder victim in St. Petersburg, Florida at Memorial Park Cemetery.

The body was discovered on October 31, 1969, by a man who noticed a black trunk and attempted to pick it up. Noticing that it was exceedingly weighty, he immediately called the police. The trunk was so heavy, that the patrolman sent to the scene, James R. Price, was unable to lift it by himself. Another patrolman assisted Price with loading the trunk into a cruiser, and when they eventually managed to unlock it, their fears were confirmed.

An article from the Tampa Bay Times published 01 Nov 1969 details that the woman was found dressed in a sheer green nightdress, stuffed into a "black steamer-type trunk" that had been left under a tree "fifty feet from the southeast corner of the parking lot and about 10-feet from a well-worn car trail" near 34th Street South, St. Petersburg.

She was described as Caucasian, with dark hair, approximately 5’9 and 130lbs. She appeared to be in her early twenties and was found curled up into the foetal position, wrapped in plastic, with her head covered by a towel. When a victim’s head or face is covered, it is often indicative that the killer is known to them.  Any other distinguishing features were hard to determine with the naked eye, as the body was already in a state of decomposition.

It was determined that she had been killed between 46 - 56 hours before her body was discovered, and it appeared she had been strangled to death and beaten about the face. Around her neck was a loosely wound cord, similar to that of a bolo tie.  

The body was kept at the morgue in Mound Park Hospital and the autopsy performed by Dr. John Shinner who reported the cause of death to be "strangulation by garrotting or ligature."

Autopsy also revealed that the woman had an uncommon blood type- ARH Positive. She was missing both her tonsils and adenoids. There was also scarring around one of her lungs from a previous pleurisy and evidence that she also suffered a mild disease of the gall bladder.

She had not been sexually assaulted before the murder.

The victim’s fingerprints were taken and sent off to the FBI who had no luck in identifying her. The only lead officers had to go on was the trunk. They made an appeal to the public in an attempt to locate its origins, since it seemed to be new. It was described as twenty inches wide, sixteen and a half inches deep and thirty-five and a half inches long.  The trunk was later sent to an FBI lab in Washington to be further analysed.


After exhausting every avenue and failing to identify the victim, it was decided the body was to be interred after extensive samples and x-rays were taken for future identification purposes. Up to one hundred people with missing family members had called to view the body, but none of them were a match.

In 2010, the victim’s body was exhumed to take new DNA samples, however, the remains were too degraded to collect a viable sample.

Over the last six months, the case has been reopened, resulting in a successful identification of the Trunk Jane Doe as 41-year-old Sylvia June Atherton.

The identification became possible after police discovered some of the original samples of the victim's skin and hair taken back in the sixties. These samples were handed over to Othram Labs where a DNA profile of the victim was created and linked to the profiles of her children.

According to reports, Sylvia Atherton resided in Tuscon, Arizona with her husband and children. The family relocated to Chicago with Sylvia leaving two children from a previous marriage behind.

One of Sylvia’s surviving daughters, Syllen Gates, who was just nine years old at the time, said that a few years before her mother was found dead, Sylvia had left for Chicago with her husband, Stuart Brown, her young daughter Kimberly Anne Brown (5), her adult son Gary Sullivan, and daughter Donna, as well as Donna's husband David Lindhurst. After that, she, and her 11-year-old brother who was also left behind in Tuscon, never heard from her mother again. Syllen had no idea that Sylvia was considered a missing person and had never heard of the “Trunk Lady” cold case.

Sylvia Atherton’s husband died in 1999 and had not reported her missing at any point. She was not mentioned in any documents pertaining to her ex-husband, including a bankruptcy filing.   

It was discovered that the black steam trunk she was found in belonged to her.

According to a conference by the St. Petersburg police, two boys saw a pair of adult men pull up to the site of the discovery in a white van, and place the trunk on the ground under the tree before driving away.

There does not seem to be anything linking Sylvia to where her body was discovered and police are now trying to locate Sylvia Atherton’s other daughters, whose wellbeing they are concerned for. They also hope that when found, the women may be able to fill in some of the gaps about what may have happened to their mother and who may be responsible.

Sources: [X][X][X][X][X][X][X]


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