Canadian community baffled by severed feet
Even on a bright, breezy summer’s day, there is something uninviting about Savage Road. Its single-lane track runs straight as an arrow before stopping at the water’s edge on Westham Island, 24km from central Vancouver.
At one end, a farm shop offers honey, fresh eggs and prawns. Nearby is a rod and gun club. Beyond the flattened delta landscape, mountains shimmer on the horizon.
At the far end of Savage Road stands a boat yard. Hulking pieces of rusted machinery lie close to a concrete ramp leading to the water. It was here on Monday that the couple who own the yard found something not entirely unexpected in the water: a severed foot.
“We were just walking out in the morning, when we saw a shoe floating in the water, right there,” the man, who preferred not to give his name, recounted two days later. “We thought, ‘Oh no, there’s another one.’ Any time you see a shoe floating in the water, you kind of dread what you’re going to find.”
“We flipped it over with a stick and saw it was all yellow inside,” said the man. “You could see there was a foot in there. It was pretty nasty. And it stank.”
He pointed across the water to a radio tower on another island, more than a kilometre away. “That’s where they found the one last week,” he said.
The two feet encased in training shoes are merely the latest chapters in a whodunnit that has the locals in this fishing and ferrying community buzzing.
Five human feet have washed up on the island coastline around Vancouver since August last year, including two in the past four weeks. All but the one on Westham Island have been right feet; all but one appear to have been male and all have been wearing trainers—Reeboks, Nikes and Adidas. The first four were all size 12.
The most recent find made front-page news in Canada: “The mystery of the feet” was the Vancouver Sun‘s take on the story, while the normally staid National Post tried “British Columbia’s sixth foot of separation”, following it up with the quizzical “Why is it always feet?”. The Province, a somewhat racier local tabloid, took a more optimistic slant: “Sixth foot raises hopes”, it proclaimed.
But the most recent foot turned out not to be human at all. A prankster had stuffed an animal paw into a trainer and then planted it on the beach. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were not amused.
“Whoever is responsible for this took the time to ensure that the remains were set up to closely resemble human remains,” said Inspector Brendan FitzPatrick. “Many families with missing loved ones are closely watching and wondering if it is their loved one who has been found. The insensitivity shown to the families and the victims involved is unbelievable.”
One of the first on the scene at Campbell River was Kirsten Stevens, whose brother was one of five men who died when their seaplane crashed three years ago minutes away from the site. Her brother’s remains were the only ones found.
“We are so frustrated,” she told the Globe and Mail. “This is the same spot where the plane took off from. It’s a constant reminder of the lack of closure.”
DNA profiles of the first three feet, found last year, do not match any missing-person cases, according to the coroner’s office. While the evidence has been gathered, there are few clues to the origin of the five feet.
Five of a kind
“The big picture is that there are body parts washing up all over the place all the time,” said Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a retired oceanographer-turned-beachcomber who is writing a book about flotsam and jetsam to be published next year titled The Floating World.
But this, he admits, is different. “I’ve never come across a time when we’ve had five of one kind at one time. It’s highly unusual.”
Ebbesmeyer got his start in the world of flotsam thanks, coincidentally, to Nike shoes. His interest in tracing the movements of ocean-borne objects was piqued by the loss in 1990 of 80 000 Nike shoes when five containers rolled off a ship in heavy waters off Alaska.
But shoes with feet in them are a different matter. “The shoe is going to protect the foot pretty well,” Ebbesmeyer said. “Most shoes float, and sneakers tend to float sole up, so that would protect them from birds.”
Theories about the origins of the feet abound. Some suggest that they belong to victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami, or that they may be from the victims of maritime or air accidents.
Others point to the large numbers of missing people in British Columbia. According to police there were 2 371 people listed as missing in the province at the end of May, with gang-related crime, drugs and homelessness all contributing to the problem.
The exploits of a Vancouver area pig farmer, Robert Pickton, also loom large. He was convicted last year of the murder of six women, and according to the prosecution at his trial confessed to the murder of 43 others.
The suggestion that there may be a criminal element connected with the appearance of so many feet is bolstered by the conclusion of Ebbesmeyer and other oceanographers that the feet had most probably been carried down the Fraser River—which flows from the Rocky Mountains before reaching the Pacific Ocean at Vancouver—swelled by the spring snow melt.
“This is such a highly improbable situation it begs the question of foul play,” said Ebbesmeyer.
The police are refusing to speculate.
“It is a unique situation but that doesn’t mean there is a link between them all,” said a Delta police spokesperson, Sharlene Brooks. “Our forensic investigation will help us identify them, then hopefully we can establish the circumstances of death and determine if this was accidental or a criminal act. We’re treating it as a criminal investigation until we have reached that determination. That’s the prudent thing to do. We’d do that regardless of whether it was a foot.”
Back at Westham Island, the man who found foot number five has few doubts about its origin.
“This is coming down from the river, no question about it,” he said. “There’s someone doing this all right. Think about it: if they tied a chain around someone’s ankle and threw them overboard, the foot would just pop off. That could explain it. Maybe they got a lot of bodies stored up in a container and they got washed out. We don’t know. There’s a lot of stuff goes on over there,” he added, nodding toward the city.
One person’s misfortune, however, did bring him some reward.
“This is private property you’re on,” he said. “We’ve had just about everything here the last couple of days, helicopters, boats, TV. We even took a photograph and sold it to the TV for $800. If they can afford to fly people around the world to look at this, there must be some money for a photograph.”—guardian.co.uk