Weird Crime

09.04.11

Canada’s Severed-Feet Mystery

Since 2007, 11 human feet have washed up on the shore near British Columbia—and no one knows why. Winston Ross on the spooky case that has authorities grimacing.

Just before suppertime on Tuesday, someone spotted a human foot, attached to a leg and encased in a running shoe, bobbing in False Creek, which divides downtown Vancouver from the rest of the city.

As the creek is made up of the four different waterways that encircle this British Columbia metropolis, its impossible to say for sure where the foot came from. But what is known, and what’s truly baffling about this particular appendage, is that its the 11th to appear in nearby waters in the past four years.

Eleven feet, some right and some left, all clad in buoyant running shoes, all within 125 miles or so of each other.

Is there a serial killer with a foot fetish on the loose? Some crime buffs would like to think so, and even those who disagree have to admit that the whole thing sounds like a real-life episode of Dexter. But it turns out that the best explanation for the floating appendages is more science than fiction, more droll than juicy.

Since the feet began washing onto shores in British Columbia’s Georgia Strait in 2007, mystery aficionados have salivated at the chance to solve the case from their armchairs. But the first of those limbs have since been identified, say officials whove run DNA tests and examined the feet for signs of foul play. And the results of those cases are in.

“Theres no evidence,” Vancouver City Coroner Stephen Fonseca told The Daily Beast on Friday, “of mechanical disarticulation.”

In other words, the feet came apart from their owners naturally. They weren’t hacked off or sawed off or chewed off or yanked off. They just drifted away from their bodies, as decomposing limbs are wont to do.

That alone, of course, doesn’t mean the feet weren’t murdered. But Canadian detectives have also spent a good deal of time investigating the backgrounds of the limbs’ owners in recent years, perhaps due to mounting media-driven pressure to solve the mystery of the missing feet.

“Even a bad episode of The Sopranos will cough up a couple other body parts than feet,” said forensics consultant and former Toronto Police detective Mark Mendelson. “There are so many coincidences taking place, I don’t think you can write it off. Everybody who jumps off a bridge is wearing runners? It’s bizarre. The common denominators are such that you’ve got to wonder. Until you can show me something pathologically concrete that this is a natural separation of that foot from a body, then I’m saying you’ve got to think dirty.”

The results can only have been a disappointment to conspiracy theorists (not to suggest that Mendelson is one of them). For one, the only feet that have been linked to one another actually belonged to the same person: a right and a left. The rest have all been ruled, if you will, disconnected.

One foot that washed up on the banks of the Fraser River in 2007 belonged to a 28-year-old man from Surrey, B.C., police learned after releasing a photograph to the media. (The family recognized the shoe and DNA confirmed the mans ID.)

Any one given foot may have one or more different meanings or theories, but when you see an overall pattern like this, it certainly is highly suspicious.

While a foot isn’t nearly enough of a body on which to perform a real autopsy and determine a cause of death, investigators did learn that this particular man had a history of mental illness, and that he was distraught” before disappearing from his home in Surrey on April 5, 2007.

“It is suspected that Mr. (redacted) entered the Fraser River in Delta, B.C., and soon after unconsciousness or death, his body sank,” wrote Karen Collins, coroner of the province of British Columbia, in a report obtained by The Daily Beast. “There was no evidence of foul play.”

Another completed investigation linked a missing foot via DNA evidence to a 23-year-old man from White Rock, B.C. He suffered from schizophrenia but didn’t like the effect his medication had on him and wasn’t taking it, which led to “a breakdown” in January 2008, according to Coroner Fonseca’s report. Days before he disappeared, he went to see a psychiatrist at the urging of his father, and the shrink injected the man with an anti-psychotic.

It didn’t take. He was last seen in his car beneath a bridge over the Fraser River, the same river where his body turned up.

Of four feet that have been identified so far, none are thought to have involved any sort of foul play, Fonseca said. “There’s certainly nothing to indicate that they died at the hands of another.”

The more likely scenario, says Gail Anderson, a criminologist at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University, is suicide. Vancouver is a city of many bridges, and jumping from them remains a popular way for people to take their own lives. Investigations into the backgrounds of the owners of the feet so far identified all point in that direction, even if there’s no definitive proof of persons hurling themselves into the water.

“All the ones who’ve been identified so far, there’s no mystery. These people were very depressed, unhappy about life, and were last seen heading toward the water,” Anderson said. “People jump off bridges. They deliberately wish to disappear.”

Much of a letdown as that may be to certain bloggers and If it bleeds, it leads” journos, it’s what makes the most sense, says Anderson—weird as it is to imagine so many feet bobbing to the surface in this one relatively small part of the world.

But why feet? Why not hands and heads and torsos? Because unlike other parts of the body, feet are often ensconced in buoyant, mummifying tennis shoes, says Richard Thompson, a physical oceanographer with the federal Institute of Ocean Sciences on Vancouver Island. While other appendages might separate, sink, and decompose, the shoes preserve all those tiny bones that would otherwise break down in the salt water, and the air-filled or rubberized soles at the bottom of those shoes would cause them to float to the surface.

Why so many in the same place? That’s a trickier question, and it’s a big part of the reason high-profile crime experts from all over the world have weighed in to suggest something’s rotten in Canada. 

“Why is this happening now, in Vancouver, when it wasn’t happening before?” asked criminologist Kim Rossmo of Texas State Univeristy, who specializes in geographic profiling. “Any one given foot may have one or more different meanings or theories, but when you see an overall pattern like this, it certainly is highly suspicious.”

But there’s a reasonable explanation for that too, Thompson says. Ocean currents in this part of the world have a way of channeling items such as floating feet into the same general area, by design.

“There’s a lot of recirculation in the region; we’re working here with a semi-enclosed basin. Fraser River, False Creek, Burrard Inlet—all those regions around there are somewhat semi-enclosed. The tidal currents and the winds can keep things that are floating recirculating in the system. They don’t necessarily get rapidly flushed out... False Creek is really a backwater.”

Another possible explanation for so many feet discovered in the same place is the Vicious Cycle theory. Each time a new one gets discovered, that fuels more media attention, getting the general public that much more riled up and vigiliant about missing feet, thereby turning what otherwise might be placid walks on the beach into scavenger hunts. Time was, you saw a shoe floating in the surf, you wouldn’t give it a second glance. But now that British Columbia has become famous for floating feet, people are too curious not to check it out.

“People will wade out to go look at a shoe,” Fonseca said.

So, with apologies to the modern-day Sherlock Holmes of the world, there’s apparently no mystery to be solved in Vancouver, at least not one that’s derived from all the newfound feet.

“It is creepy. I guess that’s the fascination,” Thompson said. He’s just not a conspiracy theorist, though, offering up as proof: “I believe the Americans landed on the moon.”

But there is one juicy morsel in the latest discovery, food for thought for those with an Agatha Christie complex. The foot found on False Creek was near a part of Vancouver known as Leg in Boot Square. That’s because in the 1800s, someone found a boot with a leg in it that had washed up on the shore of the creek.

“Police nailed it to the door of the station,” Rossmo said, “with a sign that said, ‘If anyone recognizes this, come talk to us.’”

If those two feet were somehow connected, police would have a real mystery on their hands.