ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) — St. Petersburg police are set to give significant updates on two major cold case investigations.
While details on the updates were limited, the St. Petersburg Police Department mentioned that one case was the “Trunk Lady” case of 1969.
According to police, the “Trunk Murder Case” first began on Halloween 1969 when a Parks and Recreation supervisor discovered a steamer trunk while looking for oak tree seedlings behind the Oyster Bar, which is now a church on 34th Street South.
The trunk was locked, so the supervisor called the police.
“Two juveniles observed two white male subjects pull up in a pickup truck, place the trunk in the field, and then leave,” Assistant Chief Michael Kovacsev said.
When officers opened up the trunk, they found the body of a woman who was strangled to death with a “man’s Western-style Bolo tie.” The department said the body was wrapped in plastic and had injuries to the head.
The victim was described as a white woman who stood at 5 feet 9 inches and weighed 130 pounds. She was also said to have given birth before and had the impression of a ring on her left ring finger, although she had no jewelry on her.
Multiple teeth and bone samples were examined with the help of the USF Department of Anthropology, but they were too degraded to get any results.
“Especially with the older cases, DNA wasn’t thought of,” Kovacsev said. “Preservation of evidence wasn’t necessarily as well thought of as well thought of as the way we do things today.”
However, nearly 53 years later, police finally identified the victim as Sylvia June Atherton, 41, of Tuscon, Arizona.
Kovacsev said the discovery came this year after Detective Wally Pavelski found an original sample of Atherton’s skin and hair that was taken during the autopsy.
The sample was sent to OTHRAM LABS in Texas, which resulted in a DNA profile. The lab used that profile in a genealogy database that led police to Atherton’s children.
According to Kovacsev, Pavelski contacted one of Atherton’s daughters, Syllen Gates, who said she was about 5 years old when her mother left Arizona with her husband Stuart Brown, her 19-year-old sister Donna, and her 4-year-old sister Kimberly in 1965.
By the time of her mother’s murder, she was only 9 years old.
“We had no idea what happened to her,” Gates said.
Gates, who now lives in California, said it is a sad relief to finally find out what happened to her mother. However, she said she still does not know what happened to her sisters.
“If we could just get the word out, try to locate my sisters, it would be a blessing to my family,” she said while fighting tears.
Kovacsev said police do not yet know who killed Atherton. However, the assistant chief said her husband, who died in 1999, did not report her missing and did not list her on bankruptcy records.