The not-quite-solved mystery of the severed feet

Turns out all those detached feet in sneakers that have washed up on B.C. shores since 2007 aren’t such a mystery after all — except for two feet belonging to the same unknown man.

“We may eventually figure it out,” said Bill Inkster, the former dentist who manages the identification unit for the B.C. Coroners Service.

One foot belonging to the unidentified person — DNA testing revealed it was a man — washed up in False Creek near the Edgewater Casino in August 2011. The man’s other foot turned up almost a year later at the dock by the Plaza of Nations.

“I have a condo right close to False Creek so I think about it a lot,” said Inkster, whose team at the coroners service has seemingly done the impossible by identifying 10 other sneaker-clad feet that have floated onto B.C.’s shores since 2007. The feet belonged to seven different people.

But the identity of the eighth remains unknown. B.C. keeps a DNA database of people missing and believed dead, but the feet didn’t match any of those.

They were able to determine that the man was wearing a pair of size-nine sneakers bought at Walmart in July 2010 or some time after. Because the feet both washed up in False Creek, Inkster is convinced the body is still there under the water.

“There’s very little in and out current,” Inkster said, adding police divers searched the area after the feet were found. “But it was too murky and it’s a huge area to look. Every summer, I feel like getting flippers and a mask and going down there to look for the rest of this guy.”

There was nothing suspicious in the deaths of any of the identified victims, Inkster said. The phenomenon of the feet in sneakers started in August 2007, when a girl found a foot on the beach at Jedediah Island, northwest of Vancouver.

“They’re not severed, they’re disarticulated,” Inkster explains. As the body decomposes the feet are separated from the rest of the body. Time was, the feet would have just stayed underwater with the rest of the body. But Nike Air, and all those other sneakers that followed, changed that with designs that featured little air pockets.

“It was just the sudden appearance of the very buoyant shoes,” Inkster said. “It turned them into little life jackets, so (the feet) tend to bob up. Historically, they would just lay there.”

With the sneaker-clad feet, “there’s usually a sock and some bones, no teeth, no fingerprints, no ID — how in the world do you even start to guess who that is?”

B.C.’s unique missing persons DNA database helps, he said, and the coroners service has an anthropologist who helps with investigations by determining approximately how long each foot has been in the water. Exposure to water can degrade the DNA in human remains, but so far DNA matches have been the key to all their identifications.

“We’ve had a foot showing up, let’s say somewhere out on the Fraser River, and then a year later a foot showing up in the Gulf Islands. But they’re from the same victim. That’s happened,” Inkster said.

“Once you’ve determined who this is, you fill in the story of that person’s life, and the story of their last moments before they went missing.”

Sadly, the feet generally belong to suicide victims. “That’s the common theme.”

This isn’t just a B.C. phenomenon. Inkster has heard of similar cases elsewhere in the world. The most recent report came last May from Seattle, where volunteers picking up trash at Elliott Bay north of downtown found a foot in a white New Balance sneaker.

“It’s just a function of waterways. We’ve had them in places like Norway, where there are a lot of islands and waterways. Wherever there’s a lot of high bridges.”

Which bring us back to that guy who may or may not still be in False Creek. If he were suicidal, would he really have jumped off the comparatively low Cambie Bridge?

“If there’s anyone who has any clues to this person, we’d love to hear,” Inkster said. “I kind of obsess about the last one.”