‘Trunk Lady’ identified 53 years after she was found wrapped in plastic

Posted at 4:49 PM, May 30, 2023 and last updated 1:03 PM, June 14, 2023

By: Emily McCain

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (Scripps News Tampa) — More than 50 years after the body of an unknown woman was found in a trunk in a field in St. Petersburg, subsequently dubbed the “Trunk Lady” case, police said they’ve identified her.

black and white photo showing a trunk in a wooded area

A trunk found in wooded area on October 31, 1969 contained the remains of Sylvia June Atherton. (St. Petersburg Police Department)

Sylvia June Atherton was 41 at the time that she was killed, police said. She left behind five children and was from Tucson, Arizona, with seemingly no ties to St. Pete.

Atherton’s body was found in a large black trunk on Halloween Day in a wooded area of St. Petersburg. Police said two kids told officers at the time that they saw two men pull up in a pickup, put the trunk in the field, and leave.

Atherton was found wrapped in plastic inside the trunk. Police have not released any information on Atherton’s cause of death.

Assistant Chief Mike Kovacsev said detectives at the time searched for missing person reports that matched the description of the body found but after years of trying, the case went cold.

Kovacsev said in 2010, as part of an effort to identify unknown victims, the police department exhumed Atherton’s body to try to get a DNA sample. She was buried as a Jane Doe.

The attempt was unsuccessful, Kovacsev said, because her remains were too degraded.

black and white photo of sylvia and donna atherton

Sylvia Atherton is seen here with her daughter, Donna, in an undated photo. (St. Petersburg Police Department)

In late 2022 and early 2023, Kovacsev said detectives went back through the case again to see if anything was missed. Kovacsev said detectives found hair that was never tested and sent it to a private lab, which was able to get a DNA profile from it.

The lab was able to run the profile through a genealogy database which led authorities to identify Atherton and find some of her living relatives.

Kovacsev said Atherton left Arizona, took two of her children to her previous husband in Chicago, and was never seen by her children again.

Kovacsev said police don’t have information on who killed her at this time.

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

Kovacsev said the trunk Atherton was found in belonged to her. She was remarried, and her husband at the time never reported her missing. Kovacsev said he passed away in 1999.

“You can see there’s some inferences there that we kind of have to fill in the gaps,” Kovacsev said. “We want to bring forward the fact that she has a name now after 53 years, her family does have the closure, and that’s the closure we’re trying to bring forward.”

Kovacsev added, “We may not always be able to bring an arrest forward, but we need to be able to show that we still care.”

This story was originally published on May 30, 2023, by WFTS in Tampa, an E.W. Scripps Company.