NATIONAL

MYSTERY AFOOT

If it’s normal for feet to wash up, shouldn’t it happen all the time?

NANCY MACDONALD July 7 2008
NATIONAL

MYSTERY AFOOT

If it’s normal for feet to wash up, shouldn’t it happen all the time?

NANCY MACDONALD July 7 2008

MYSTERY AFOOT

NATIONAL

If it’s normal for feet to wash up, shouldn’t it happen all the time?

NANCY MACDONALD

“Oh no. Not another shoe,” Sharon Bennett remembers telling her husband, Michael. The Bennetts, commercial salmon fishers from sleepy Westham Island, 20 km south of Vancouver, were walking up the dock last Monday when they spotted the white Adidas sneaker bobbing harmlessly in the muddy-grey water. The size 10 shoe was floating low in the water, as if weighted down; a sock was trailing behind it. Inside, “it was all yellow,” says Michael, who fished the shoe from the river with a stick. Sharon saw bone before turning and walking away.

Since last fall, five human feet in runners—four right and one left—have washed ashore near Vancouver. The fourth was found a stone’s throw from the Bennetts’ tidy docks near the mouth of the Fraser River. “The feet” have put a lot of British Columbians on edge; Willie Pickton and Clifford Olsen, the country’s worst serial killers, carried out their work here in the Lower Mainland. But, grim as it sounds, oceans and rivers routinely spit out human feet.

True, five in 10 months is unprecedented, but, since 1990, at least 45 feet, most encased in runners and socks, were reported to authorities after washing ashore in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Britain and Australia. That’s almost three a year, with 16 reported in the U.S. and nine in Canada. (None were reported in B.C. in recent memory, before this round, but Vancouver’s Leg-in-Boot Square is said to have been named for a leg that washed ashore in the 1800s—boot and all.) In at least 25 cases, police could determine the origins of the feet. Often, though, it took months to trace feet to owners. In New Zealand in 2006, the feet of two 17-year-olds washed ashore nearly two years after their vehicles plummeted into rivers in unrelated accidents. One, encased in a Sketchers sneaker, had drifted all the way to the open ocean; the teen’s body had never been recovered but the foot, definitively linked to her via DNA testing, provided some closure to her grieving family.

“Feet do disarticulate; they separate in decomposition and, because they’re very light and encased in a buoyant shoe, will float to the surface,” explains forensic entomologist Gail Anderson, who in 2001 was named one of the world’s top five innovators in the field of criminal justice by Time magazine. Hands break apart and disintegrate because nothing is holding them together, she explains, but the foot is protected by the tight sock and shoe. Anderson probably knows more about

underwater decomposition than anyone on the continent, thanks to her pioneering research in B.C.’s VENUS undersea labnamed the world’s most advanced underwater observatory by New Scientist magazine.

‘NO ONE’S SEEN WHAT HAPPENS TO A BODY UNDERWATER’

But that’s not saying much. “We know next to nothing about what happens to bodies underwater,” admits the British-born scientist, who’s assisted in over 150 murder investigations, though not with “the feet.” On land, determining cause of death is an increasingly exact science; if the body is found within a month, time of death can be pinpointed to within a day. But when a corpse is pulled from the ocean, experts are left scratching their heads. Traditional forensic methods, say measuring the temperatures of the organs, or studying the maggots, beetles, flies and pollen found on the body, just don’t translate. Then, too, the body is covered in “all sorts of funny little marks,” says Anderson. But what caused them? A weapon? A boat’s propeller? Scavenging fish? Sharp rocks, reef or coral? Was it an accident? Or something more sinister? Was she tortured? Did she suffer? Science can’t help. Not yet, anyway.

Eighteen months ago, Anderson sank a euthanized, 25-kg pig—whose skin, flesh and physiology is the closest thing to human—to 94 m in the Saanich Inlet. A robot positioned the carcass on the ocean floor, directly in front of a rolling camera. It was a scientific first. “No one’s ever seen what happens to a body underwater,” says Anderson, who watched, transfixed, in real time. Then she sank a second. She swears she could have tuned in 24 hours a day: crabs with giant pincers, sharks, squat lobster, shrimp, sea lice and the odd fish “tore it down to nothing in 28 days.” Unlike on land, scavengers attacked the head and face last. Finally, “we’re getting a little bit of the picture,” says Anderson, who hopes to continue her research at different depths, temperatures and currents.

On the 16th day of her study, a hoof naturally detached from the pig carcass and floated to the surface— precisely what she believes happened to B.C.’s mystery feet. Though the province is abuzz with speculation involving serial killers and depraved gang rituals, she doesn’t suspect foul play. She figures the feet are tied to the same tragic event, a plane crash or an accident, perhaps involving a foreign vessel “never reported to Canadian authorities because it had nothing to do with us.”

As for Sharon Bennett, for the past week she’s had a recurring nightmare about body parts. “Every day I look into the water now,” she says, scanning for shoes. A lot of people do. M