Why 21 severed human feet washed up in Canada and the United States

Drone view over Home Bay on Jedediah Island, British Columbia, where the first of the area’s severed feet was found in 2007. (BWJinks, CC BY-SA 4.0)

A foot washes up on a beach. Short article on local news. Another one the foot is washed. Not the matching left foot, but another right foot. Suddenly you have the makings of a headline-grabbing double murder mystery.

Make it a headline Mass murder mystery. Over the past decade and a half, 21 feet have washed ashore on the shores of the Salish Sea, the body of water that straddles the Canada-US border on the Pacific coast. That’s just a foot short of an entire football team.

A botched serial killer?

Is this the work of a botched serial killer with a foot fetish? Well no. Perhaps the strangest thing about the severed feet case is that foul play was ruled out – but not before the mystery went viral, confusing people around the world and inspiring mystery writers as far as Norway.

It all started in the summer of 2007. On August 20, a girl spotted a blue and white Adidas sneaker on the shores of Jedediah Island, between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island. Peeking inside the shoe, she was shocked to find it contained a rotting male right foot.

Just six days later, another size 12 sneaker, this time a black and white Reebok, was found on Gabriola Island, about 30 miles to the southeast. Inside, another dilapidated male right foot. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were baffled.

“Finding one foot is like a million to one, but finding two is madness,” RCMP spokesman Garry Cox said. “I’ve heard of dancers with two left feet, but come on.”

The case refused to cool down. Over the next year, five more severed feet appeared.

  • On February 8, 2008, another male right foot washed ashore on Valdés Island. This time a size 11.
  • On May 22, a female right foot was found on the island of Kirkland, tied up in a blue and white trainer from a brand called New Balance.
  • On June 16, two Westham Island hikers found the first left foot. It matched the right foot found earlier on Valdes Island.
  • On August 1, a camper discovered a male right foot inside a size 11 black shoe in Pysht, Washington – the first discovery on the US side of the border. With the severed feet appearing to be a Canadian thing, police suspect that currents may have carried this specimen across the international maritime boundary, just 10 miles to the north.
  • On November 11, a woman’s left foot was found in the Fraser River in Richmond. The shoe brand was New Balance. DNA testing matched it to the foot found on Kirkland Island.
severed feet

A map of where 15 Feet were found in Canada between 2007 and 2019. During the same period, an additional six Feet washed up on the US side of the maritime border. (Source: British Columbia Coroners Service)

That year, media speculation and public anxiety reached a fever pitch. Popular theories involved the aforementioned serial killer, mob hits, alien abductions and obductions (i.e. autopsies), and illegal immigrants who met their gruesome deaths in dumped containers deep in the ocean. ‘ocean. The phenomenon has even attracted hoaxes, littering shoes filled with non-human bones along the Pacific coasts of western Canada.

Three Keys to the Mystery

In 2009, only one foot was found in Canadian waters; two more in 2011 and another in 2012. (Overall, six feet would appear on the US side, including the most recent, in January 2019 on Jetty Island, just off Everett, Washington.)

Although the rate of discovery has slowed, the mystery has endured. But scientists have formulated their own theories, less spectacular than those of the media. By the time another matching pair showed up at Botanical Beach on Vancouver Island, just days apart in February 2016, they were pretty sure.

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Three elements were essential to finding the solution to the macabre mystery: a better understanding of the body’s decomposition in the sea, an appreciation of the changes in the footwear industry and DNA research.

First used in 1988, the “Salish Sea” is the relatively new name for a bioregion that includes three inland marine waterways straddling the Canada-United States border: the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Puget Sound. The new name complements the old ones and does not replace them. (Credit: Atlas of the Salish Sea, Western Washington University)

Corpses in the Salish Sea

Let’s start with what happens when a dead body ends up in the ocean. (If you’re soft-tempered, avert your mind’s eye now, because the process isn’t pretty. You’ve been warned.)

Bodies do not simply decompose; when they sink, they are dismantled by scavenger creatures of the depths. These bottom feeders prefer parts of the body with softer tissue – around the orifices, but also the ankles. Research conducted in 2007 by Simon Fraser University for the Canadian police on bodily decomposition, conducted in the very waters where many feet would be found, showed that deep-dwelling fish, shrimp and crustaceans could reduce a corpse to a skeleton in less than four years. days.

While what remains of the body remains at the bottom of the sea, the gnawed feet float on the surface – at least, if they are supported by latest generation sneakers. This is because they are generally made of lighter foam than their pre-2000 counterparts, and they often also have soles that contain air pockets. Additionally, the region’s topography and prevailing westerly winds help carry wrecks and jetsams ashore around the Salish Sea.

Canada, putting its best foot forward

DNA analysis allowed the RCMP to link most of the feet to people who had been missing and presumed dead as a result of an accident or suicide. The New Balance sneakers belonged to a woman who had jumped off a bridge; the first foot from Jedediah Island was linked to a man known to suffer from depression and missing since 2004. The foot found in November 2011 matched a local fisherman who went missing in 1987. In all, three pairs of feet were “matched” to each other.

As mentioned, the last foot sneaker appeared in 2019, and given the trends in footwear, it’s unlikely to be the last. However, the phenomenon of cut feet was known locally long before modern sneaker technology made its occurrence more likely.

One incident was commemorated with its own place name. In 1887, police found a severed leg in a knee-high boot in the woods of False Creek, a narrow inlet that now separates downtown Vancouver from the West End. It was speculated that the leg had belonged to a man who had disappeared days before and was all that was left of him after an encounter with a local cougar. The local trees are gone, but the area where police made their discovery over a century ago is officially known as Leg-in-Boot Square.

A severed leg found in Vancouver in 1887 was commemorated with its own street sign: “Leg-in-Boot Square.” (Credit: Street View, Google Maps)

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