St. Pete ‘trunk lady’ murder victim identified after 53 years, search continues for her 2 daughters

After 53 years, Syllen Gates finally knows what happened to her mother who disappeared in 1965 from Tucson, Arizona when she was just nine years old. 

According to the St. Petersburg Police Department, two juveniles called police after they saw two white men put a trunk in a field behind what was the Oyster Bar, located at 4300 34th Street South, on Halloween day 1969. 

Inside the trunk, officers found the body of a woman wrapped in a large plastic bag. Detectives say she had visible injuries to her head and was strangled with a Western-style bolo tie and was partially clothed in a pajama top.

Investigators say she was an apparent homicide victim and for decades she was known as the ‘trunk lady’.

She was buried as a ‘Jane Doe’ in Memorial Park Cemetery. Her body was exhumed on February 10, 2010. 

Through the years, investigators tried multiple times to identify her using her teeth and bone samples, but the samples were too degraded. 

However, this year, St. Petersburg cold case detective Wally Pavelski discovered an original sample of the victim’s hair and skin taken during the autopsy and sent it to a lab in Texas. 

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In April, Orthram labs sent back a DNA profile, which along with DNA from her children, confirmed her identity as Sylvia June Atherton. 


Clothing worn by 'the trunk lady'. Courtesy St. Petersburg Police Department. 

Police say she was 41 when she died and the mother of five children.   

"We don’t have a resolution on who killed her yet. This is where amateur sleuths will come in," stated St. Petersburg Assistant Police Chief Michael Kovacsev. "This is where we’re asking for assistance to kind of put the pieces together and the gaps together. We do know that this trunk was their property. We do know that she was remarried. We do know that her husband at the time passed away in 1999 and never listed her as missing. We do know that he never listed her on any bankruptcy records, so you can see there are some inferences there where we have to go and fill in the gaps." 

He added that Gates' brother confirmed that his mother used the ‘steamer’ trunk as a TV stand at the home in Arizona. 


The 'trunk lady' was discovered on Halloween in 1969. Courtesy of the St. Petersburg Police Department.

Though police do not have a suspect in her murder, Atherton’s daughter says it is a relief to finally find her. 

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"It was shocking," Gates said. "It had been so many years and we didn’t know what happened to her."


The locked trunk was found behind the Oyster Bar in St. Petersburg. Courtesy St. Petersburg Police Department. 

She said she, along with her brother, tried for years to find their mother through genealogy sites such as, but had no luck. 

In addition to solving her mother’s murder, Gates would like to locate her two sisters, who were ages 3 and 19 in 1965. Gates says her sisters left Tucson with her mother. She says her 19-year-old sister was married and had a daughter who was about three years old at the time. 

Gates says she had never heard of St. Petersburg until 1969 when her older sister left a message with a grandparent because she thought her brother had been killed in the Vietnam War. That was the last time the family heard from her. 

Anyone with information on who killed Atherton or who knows what happened to her three-year-old Kimberly and her 19-year-old daughter Donna Lindhurst is asked to call Detective Pavelski at 727-893-4823.