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Police identify ‘trunk lady’ murdered in 1969

Mark Parker

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Assistant Police Chief Mike Kovacsev announced officers recently solved St. Petersburg's "trunk lady" mystery. Screengrab.

For over 53 years, the St. Petersburg Police Department has worked to identify a woman found dead in a locked steamer trunk on Halloween Day 1969.

A California woman now knows what happened to her mother, who fled their Tucson, Arizona home in 1965. However, many questions remain.

Police officials announced a breakthrough in the cold case during a Tuesday morning press conference. Assistant Chief Michael Kovacsev said who became known as “the trunk lady” for over five decades was Sylvia June Atherton.

“After nearly 54 years, the trunk lady finally has a name,” Kovacsev said. “This is a case that has perplexed the department. For a long time, it was thought to be the longest cold case that we had.”

On Oct. 31, 1969, two juveniles reported seeing two white men in a pickup truck drop a large trunk in a wooded area behind what was then the Oyster Bar, located at 4200 34th St. S. Officers discovered a woman’s body wrapped in a large plastic bag once they broke the lock.

Detectives relayed that she had head injuries and someone strangled her with a man’s bolo tie. She was only partially clothed and wearing a pajama top.

All other details remained elusive, and the “trunk lady” was buried as Jane Doe in Memorial Park Cemetery. In February 2010, Dr. Erin Kimmerle and University of South Florida anthropologists helped officers exhume the unnamed body.

Attempts to obtain DNA samples were unsuccessful, as Kovacsev said the body was “too degraded.” True crime TV shows, news articles and cold case conferences failed to garner any leads.

Kovacsev said police officials began to doubt that they would ever find a resolution. That changed earlier this year when cold case detective Wally Pavelski discovered a hair sample from the original autopsy.

An independent lab was then able to extract a DNA profile that matched those of Atherton’s children.

“That is one of the things I want to highlight with cold cases,” Kovacsev said. “It takes persistence. We may not always be able to bring an arrest forward, but we need to be able to show that we still care.”

The steamer trunk (pictured) was found in a wooded area behind a restaurant at 4200 34th St. S. on October 31st, 1969. Screengrab.

Atherton was 41 and a mother of five when she died. Pavelski found and contacted one daughter, Syllen Gates, who was just 9 when her mother disappeared.

Gates, who now lives in California, participated in the press conference via Zoom. She relayed that her mother fled Arizona in 1965 for Chicago with her husband, Stuart Brown; an adult daughter and her husband; an adult son and a 5-year-old daughter, Kimberly Anne Brown.

Atherton left Gates and an 11-year-old son in Arizona with their father from a previous marriage. Donna Lindhurst, the adult daughter, and Brown are still missing.

Gates said she and her brother attempted to locate their mother through the genealogy website Ancestry.com but were unsuccessful. The only mention of St. Petersburg came from a cryptic message from Lindhurst to their grandparents in 1969.

That was the last time anyone heard from Lindhurst, who would be 73 if still alive. Gates said there was no mention of her baby sister or her mother’s disappearance.

She also noted that she had never heard of the “trunk lady” mystery until Pavelski contacted her earlier this year.

“It was so shocking,” Gates said. “We had no idea, none whatsoever. It is a relief, a sad relief.”

She and detectives now hope someone with information regarding her two siblings and mother’s murder hears the new development and comes forward. Kovacsev noted that Atherton and her husband owned the steamer trunk and used it as a TV stand at their home in Arizona.

He said Stuart Brown, who died in 1999, had never reported his wife missing. He also excluded her from court records, and, Kovacsev said, “You can see some inferences there where we have to go and fill in the gaps.”

“This is where amateur sleuths will come in,” Kovacsev said. “This is where we’re asking for assistance to kind of put the pieces together and the gaps together.”

The St. Petersburg Police Department is asking anyone with information regarding the whereabouts of Donna Lindhurst and Kimberly Anne Brown – or about Atherton’s homicide – to contact Detective Wallace Pavelski at 727-893-4823.

 

 

 

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    Chris

    May 31, 2023at8:04 am

    Thank you to the SPPD and their diligence and never giving up.

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