BC's severed-limb phenomenon moves to Ottawa, then boomerangs back again

Severed foot BC
Courtesy of the BC Coroners Service

It began with the delivery of a package containing a human foot found at the Conservative Party Headquarters in Ottawa last week. Then a hand was uncovered at a post office, destined for the Liberals. The story seemed to end with an international manhunt that resulted in the arrest of suspected killer Luka Rocco Magnotta in a Berlin internet cafe who now awaits extradition to Canada.

Then in a grisly turn of events, two Vancouver schools -- False Creek Elementary and St. George's School -- uncovered packages containing what appeared to be a human hand and foot on Tuesday.  

Whether the limbs are connected to the dismemberment case involving suspected murderer Luka Rocco Magnotta remains unknown as investigators in Vancouver and Montreal try to determine if there is a connection. 

Such gruesome details are a reminder of BC's own bizarre history involving the discovery of severed limbs.

BC's unexplained severed foot phenomenon

BC's coast has witnessed an astounding 12 human feet wash ashore in a four-year time period and all within 125 miles of each other. The feet started arriving on the beaches of the Georgia Strait in 2007, with the last reported sighting in 2011. 
 
Each foot was clad in a brand name running shoe (although one was in a men’s size 12 Cougar hiking boot.) There was no other discernable pattern, except they were all found in close proximity in populated areas. In one year, five feet turned up.

Conspiracy theorists and crime buffs would like to think a crazed killer was at work, hatching off limbs and pitching the feet into the Pacific. Or that someone with access to dead bodies, an undertaker perhaps, was chopping off feet and tossing them into the water. 

"You have to think dirty," said Mark Mendelson, a former Toronto homicide detective and forensic specialist in a CTV interview in 2011 when foot 11 turned up. "I don't know whether you can look at this as just a coincidence."

In his years on the force, Mendelson said severed limbs belonging to murder victims -- not just feet -- have surfaced on Lake Ontario. "I don't buy that it's because the shoe floats."

Natural separation of feet

But the science community had a more mundane explanation.

Coroner's reports say no evidence of "mechanical disarticulation" was found in any of the feet, which meant the feet weren't hatched off, but naturally separated from the bodies. In each case, police ruled out foul play.

"People naturally disarticulate," Vancouver Coroner Stephen Fouseca said. "Either through natural processes or marine scavengers."

According to Gail Anderson, a professor of forensic science at Simon Fraser University, a dead body in water can take anywhere from 21 days to a week to break down, depending on the water it falls in to.

And the rubber-soled, buoyant runners explains how the feet are preserved and set afloat. The feet are encased in running shoes, while other appendages aren't, so the bones get preserved, protecting them from decomposition. The air in the shoe causes the foot to float to the surface and, sometimes, wash ashore.  

"The likely scenario is that someone goes missing by falling into the water by accident or suicide. In many cases, the individual is not reported missing," Anderson said. "Because it's difficult for coroners to find a match without a comparable DNA sample, the foot is never identified." 

Since the feet were discovered, seven were identified to a missing person through DNA testing. Investigations into the victim's lifestyle gives a clearer picture of what happened, according to the BC Coroners Service.

The foot that washed up along the Fraser River in 2007 belonged to a 28-year-old man from Surrey BC whose identity police learned after releasing a photograph to the media. Investigators learned the man had had a history of mental illness, and that he was upset before he disappeared on April 5, 2007.

Another investigation connected a foot to a 23-year-old man from White Rock, BC who had suffered from schizophrenia. According to reports, he didn't take to his medication, which resulted in a breakdown in January 2008. He was last seen in his car under a bridge near the Fraser River, the same bridge where his body was eventually found.

So why all the feet in one area? According to oceanographers, the ocean currents in this part of the world channel floating items, such as feet, into the same general area. It's a result of the natural design of the waterways.

There's a lot of recirculation in the Georgia Strait. The Fraser River, False Creek, Burrard Inlet -- all locations of the discovered feet -- are semi-enclosed which means tidal currents and winds keep things that float recirculating in the system.

This weekend, three reported deaths occurred in British Columbia, and while these bodies were recovered, hundreds of bodies still go missing a year.

"It's not unusual for bodies to go missing," Fouseca explained. "When you think about all the waterways and bridges in the province, the conditions become very explainable ... Once one foot turns up, the public becomes more vigilant, which is why all the feet were found in one spot within a short time period."

The foot that washed ashore in November 2011 on Sasamat Lake in Port Moody was determined to belong to a 65-year-old man who vanished while fishing on the lake in January 1987, putting an end to the 25-year-old missing-persons case.

The sad part is that of all the people who disappear, a large majority of aren't reported missing, according to the BC Coroners Service.

On the other hand, the discovery of a shoe with a human foot inside can help a family reach closure if a family member is reported missing.

The BC floating-foot mystery gained media attention nationwide, as well as attention from international media in the U.S., Australia and South Africa - all countries with extensive coastal waters.

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