For more than a half-century, the woman was known only as the “trunk lady.”
Her body was found in a steamer trunk in a patch of woods behind a St. Petersburg seafood restaurant on Halloween 1969. She had been strangled with a tie and beaten. Witnesses saw two men in a pickup dump the trunk and take off.
Not only were police unable to find her killer, they couldn’t identify their victim. Her murder would become one of the more mysterious cold cases in city history.
Now St. Petersburg police say they have used DNA to identify the woman. Her name was Sylvia June Atherton and she was 41 when she died. She was from Tucson, Arizona and had no known ties to St. Petersburg.
At a news conference announcing the discovery, detectives also said they had used DNA to identify a suspect in another cold case: The 1997 murder of 18-year-old Richard “Juicy” Evans. Police said the killer was 15 at the time of the homicide and has since died of natural causes. They did not release his name on Tuesday.
After her body was found, Atherton was buried as a Jane Doe at Memorial Park Cemetery, 5750 49th St. N. Her body was exhumed in 2010 by Dr. Erin Kimmerle and the anthropology department at the University of South Florida. Investigators tried to use samples of her teeth and bones to identify her, but they were too degraded.
Investigators are still trying to determine who killed Atherton. Her husband, who died in 1999, never reported her missing.
One of Atherton’s children, Syllen Gates, attended a police news conference via Zoom on Tuesday. Gates’ mother and stepfather left her with her father in Tucson in 1969. Gates never heard from either of them again, and she still hasn’t been able to track down two sisters who left with them.
Before their family was contacted about the cold case update, Gates had never heard of the “trunk lady.”
“It was so shocking,” she said. “We had no idea, none whatsoever.”
At Tuesday’s news conference, police also announced that they had identified a suspect in Evans’ murder using a fingerprint found on the suspect’s bicycle.
Evans was shot in an alley near the 3400 block of 22nd Avenue S on May 28, 1997.
Witnesses saw Evans arguing with a roughly 6-foot-tall male between the ages of 15 and 20. They said he shot Evans once. They chased the suspect and he dropped a bicycle in the alley before escaping. At the time, detectives lifted fingerprints from the bike, but they were unable to match them to anyone.
Last year, Pavelski reviewed the case and matched a fingerprint from the bicycle to a man who was 15 years old at the time and knew Evans. The man matched witnesses’ description and had a violent history, police said.
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Evans’ mom, Catherine Clarkson, and aunt, Suprina Byrd, also attended the agency’s news conference on Tuesday. They said they appreciated that the case was resolved.
“I am so grateful because I thought ‘I’m 65. I don’t want to leave this world not knowing who took my child’s life,’” Clarkson said.