Tracking Down the Owner of Seattle’s Latest Foot Discovery - Pacific Standard

Tracking Down the Owner of Seattle’s Latest Foot Discovery

Fifteen feet have washed up on the shores of the Pacific Northwest in the past decade. Why have they been so vexingly hard to identify?
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(Photo: ashur/Flickr)

Nestled in the snug confines of Elliott Bay, Washington, a quiet stretch of beach called Centennial Park plays host to joggers, fishermen, and other Seattleites who have discovered the area's undisturbed bliss. On any given day, much like other Seattle beaches, trash and garbage of all kinds can be found washed up on the park’s shores. Early on a Tuesday last May, a volunteer group cleaning up trash on the park’s beaches came across something far more gruesome than the usual beer cans and candy wrappers: a tennis shoe filled with the decomposing remains of a human foot.

The shoe and its contents were immediately turned over to the Port of Seattle Police Department, who in turn sent it directly to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office. The office has released only one report on this story, merely days after the foot was found. The most useful clues from this report mostly involve the shoe itself: New Balance, white with blue trim, men’s size 10 1/2, with a pair of black Hanes cotton socks. The manufacturer of the shoe told the medical examiner that the model was first on sale in April 2008, over six years before the foot was found in Seattle.

In the early days of this phenomenon, amateur detectives and conspiracy theorists ran wild with speculation and ideas about these feet.     

At the time, forensic anthropologist Kathy Taylor told Seattle Pi’s police blog that “feet are very, very hard. There are no biological indicators in a foot.” DNA matching was ruled out at first, chiefly because extracting a sample from the foot in its condition would be a difficult, lengthy process. The medical examiner’s office also had nothing to compare the DNA to, other than extremely large databases that were unlikely to yield results. In its initial report, the medical examiner’s office pleaded with the public, especially the families of missing persons, asking them to come forward and submit a DNA sample.

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This is not the first foot to be found on the shores of the Pacific Northwest. Dubbed the “Salish sea foot mysteries” by amateur investigators, at least 15 feet have been found from Tacoma, Washington, all the way north to the islands and shorelines in the Strait of Georgia on Canada’s Pacific Coast. Journalist Winston Ross rounded up a few of the stories for the Daily Beast in 2011 after another foot was found in a British Columbia creek. Two of the feet found previously in the area were linked to their owners after investigators compared DNA evidence submitted by the missing persons’ families. One family sent in DNA for comparison after recognizing the deceased man’s shoe in police photos. Both of the victims were said to be suffering from mental illnesses, prompting investigators to chalk up their deaths as accidental.

In the early days of this phenomenon, amateur detectives and conspiracy theorists ran wild with speculation and ideas about these feet. The first four feet were found in British Columbia, and police were initially as wary and suspicious as the general public. The Toronto Star noted in 2008 that, even though police suggested that the feet were likely separated from their bodies naturally, a police spokesperson said, “We have to be aware that these could be homicide victims.” The same article mentions a few of the conspiracy theories surrounding the early foot discoveries in Canada: The feet could be from a plane crash off Quadra Island three years previous, an organized crime body dump somewhere on the coast, or even the work of a serial killer. It didn’t help that four young men had mysteriously vanished around the same time that those early feet were found in British Columbia.

The most common question the pops up when each of these feet is found is, “Why feet?” Unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists, feet make the cases rather mundane.

William Haglund and Marcella Sorg, in their textbook Advances in Forensic Taphonomy, refer to a study that the former conducted in the Puget Sound regarding the decomposition and disarticulation (the breaking of bones from their joints) of human bodies in aquatic environments. In this study, Haglund tested bodies recovered from the Puget Sound and examined them to understand the pattern of decomposition of soft tissue and bone disarticulation related to the time since death. He notes that as a body floats and is subjected to the push and pull of its environment, it basically falls apart in a fairly consistent pattern; the bones of the hands and feet are the first to go. In Haglund’s study, the body with the longest identifiable time since death (36 months) had horribly mangled and decomposed feet, but they had not yet disarticulated. Two of the bodies lost their feet completely, and they had both been in the water so long that researchers couldn’t calculate a time of death.

What does this mean for the foot recovered in Seattle? It takes at least three years for the environment of Puget Sound to force the disarticulation of a foot from its body. But there’s one slight problem in last May’s case—the shoe. In their book, Haglund and Sorg provide a table of various factors that could alter the results of the experiment, one of them being anything “covering” the body, like a shoe. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a forensic oceanographer most famous for his work tracking down Nike shoes, rubber ducks, and many other items accidentally dumped into the ocean by cargo ships, notes in his 2010 book Flotsametrics and the Floating World that “the secret of the shoes’ buoyancy was the microscopic gas-filled chambers that Nike inserted to provide springiness and absorb shocks.” There is no research on how much extra force the shoes’ buoyancy applies to a body floating in water, and so any effect on disarticulation is based only on speculation.

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Now that we understand the reasoning for the foot’s appearance, why Seattle? Why have 15 feet washed up on the shores of the Pacific Northwest in the past decade? Aside from foul play suggestions, another theory that has been floating around is that the feet could belong to bodies swept up in a 2004 Asian tsunami. While this could (but probably doesn’t) explain some of the feet found in regions like the Strait of Georgia, it is highly improbable that the foot found in Seattle could be sourced outside the Puget Sound.

Eric Kunze, an oceanographer at the University of Washington, told me over email: “Puget Sound is very enclosed and the net surface water flow is outward into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Pacific Ocean, so I would think the foot would have had a local origin.” Water comes into the Puget Sound, but far below the surface where the shoe was buoyed along by its rubber shoe cage. This limits the foot’s origin to somewhere in the Puget Sound and the rivers that flow into it, a watershed that covers over 12,000 square miles. That’s 12,000 square miles of rivers, creeks, beaches, and waterfronts that someone could fall into, for whatever reason. Thousands of places, thousands of methods and reasons, thousands of accidents, thousands of ways a body could find itself in the Puget Sound for weeks or months or years.

One could easily narrow down the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System’s database of open missing-persons cases in the state of Washington, based on the few known facts we have. Starting with 520 open cases and narrowing down for gender, time frame, and age (over the age of 10), the database leaves us with 75 potential cases that could be linked to the foot. This seems like a manageable number, but even if the foot’s owner is among these 75 cases, there is little to no concrete information on many of the cases that could link them to the foot. The foot could also just as likely belong to someone whose disappearance was not reported to the police. The Outpost for Hope calls these the missing missing and that there could be over 1.5 million adults and children whose disappearances were never reported.

The only way to narrow this list down further is to guess certain things about the owner of the foot. For example, the location listed on many of these missing-persons cases is the last place they reportedly lived, and a number of them are significantly far from the Puget Sound or any connected waters. But it’s a pretty big leap to rule them out, considering the sheer size of the Sound and how many rivers flow into it from all over Washington. I’ve looked into and attempted to find out more about a number of these cases, but I’ve hit dead ends or unreturned messages at every turn. What seemed like simply narrowing down cases now appears inconsequential—I’m as far from the truth as I was at the start.

With the number of feet washing up in the Pacific Northwest reaching into the double digits, law enforcement and local news have all but given up on solving any of the open cases, much less the most recent discovery. The medical examiner’s office has collected a DNA sample from the May 2014 foot, as noted on the NamUs database for unidentified remains, but it’s useless without a submission to compare to it.

When I started researching the foot, I couldn’t believe the apathy and nonchalance that medical examiners, detectives, and scientists showed when I wanted to know how it could be solved. Those same feelings have started creeping into my personal search, when every chance turns to nothing and I start over yet again. But I continue to dig, and, over time, as I stumble on new possibilities, I truly expect to see a photo of a man wearing those white New Balance shoes with blue trim, black socks poking out the top.

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