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Originally published June 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 23, 2008 at 9:39 AM

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5 feet, few clues make 1 big B.C. mystery

The floating feet have grabbed attention all over the world, but no one seems to really know why so many are turning up.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Where are the feet coming from?

The discovery of five feet in the Strait of Georgia in less than a year has people across the world speculating as to their origins.

Here are the pros and cons of the major theories:

The feet are the result of the natural decomposition of people who have drowned or gone missing in the Strait.

Pro: This theory is most favored by experts, who say there is no evidence of foul play.

Con: The number of feet found in a short time — without any accompanying body parts — makes for an incredible coincidence.

The feet have drifted across the Pacific after tsunamis or storms in Asia in recent years.

Pro: More than 100,000 people died in the 2004 Indonesia tsunami alone, and many bodies were never recovered.

Con: Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer says this theory should be ruled out due to the vast distances involved. Most flotsam lands near where it entered the water.

The feet are the result of a sick prank by somebody who has access to cadavers — or the work of a serial killer.

Pro: Explains the large number of feet. It is plausible that tidal currents could have taken the feet from a single source, such as the Fraser River.

Con: No supporting evidence.

Nick Perry, Times staff reporter

GABRIOLA ISLAND, B.C. — Michèle Géris remembers striding along a trail just above a beach of contoured limestone on this wooded Gulf Island last August when she noticed something nestled between an arbutus tree and a cedar tree.

"Look. A foot," she said, turning to her husband, George Baugh.

Baugh used his wife's walking stick to turn over the white, size 12 sneaker, which lay on its side.

They could see bone about level with the top of the shoe. The bone appeared to have been weathered by the ocean, like quartz that washes up on the beach, Géris recalls. When the couple looked closer, they could see sock fibers and a gray, waxy substance.

The couple called police. While they waited, Baugh leafed through a local newspaper and noticed a story about a 12-year-old girl from Washington state who, a week earlier, had been boating with her parents at remote Jedidiah Island and found an old, laced-up size 12 sneaker on the beach. Inside were the remains of a foot.

Ah, thought Baugh. We've found the other in the pair.

But it turned out that both were right feet. Baugh and Geris had found foot No. 2 in a deepening mystery in the Strait of Georgia.

Five bodiless feet — all encased in buoyant sneakers — have washed ashore in less than a year. Four have been right feet. The latest foot was found a week ago in the water off Westham Island, about 15 miles south of Vancouver.

The story has proved so fascinating, grabbing media attention across the world, that it apparently sparked a hoax last Wednesday when the remains of a dog's paw, stuffed into a sneaker with seaweed, were found on a beach in the town of Campbell River on Vancouver Island.

Terry Smith, British Columbia's chief coroner for eight years and a police officer for 35 years before that, said he can barely take a step anywhere in Vancouver without being asked about the feet.

What has made the case riveting is that no one — not police, nor forensic experts, nor tidal experts — can say with certainty why so many feet are turning up, or even whether they are the result of natural or sinister forces. Add to that the fact that none of the feet has been identified and you have a grand-scale parlor game in the making.

After months of remaining tight-lipped about the case, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police plan to hold a news conference this week to update the public on what they know. But, according to Smith, that might not be a whole lot.

DNA, but no matches

A deer munched grass outside the Gabriola detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) last week, while detachment commander Corporal Brad Szewczok remained a bit ticked off about all the attention this island of 4,000 retirees and commuters has been getting. Put a microphone in front of some guy who has downed a few beers at the pub, Szewczok says, and who knows what crackpot theory he'll come up with.

Szewczok's detachment has been responsible for collecting two of the feet. When a "swamper" who was clearing property on adjacent Valdes Island found foot No. 3 in February, it also came under Szewczok's jurisdiction.

Smith said experts have been able to extract DNA from the bones of the first three feet and hope to do the same with the two more recent feet within weeks. The DNA has been checked against dozens of missing people — including several of the four loggers whose bodies were never recovered after a plane went down off Quadra Island in 2005. But so far, no matches.

Smith's task remains daunting. According to the RCMP, there are some 2,371 people listed as missing in B.C. Many families of the missing people haven't been able to provide police with usable DNA.

Smith said there is nothing about any of the remains that indicates foul play — but he can't rule it out, either.

RCMP spokeswoman Constable Annie Linteau said the agency does not publicly discuss ongoing investigations. The major-crime unit is part of the investigation, she said, but also emphasized that there is no evidence of foul play.

One day last week, Linteau said she'd fielded 45 phone calls from media outlets across Canada and around the world, including one from Israel.

The RCMP's reticence to talk about the case has frustrated many residents, some saying it has only served to fuel speculation. There are also jurisdictional problems; the RCMP is investigating only the first four feet, with the fifth falling to the Delta, B.C., police department.

Coming apart at the joints

Gulf Island residents point out that currents sometimes bring sediment and detritus across the strait from the outlets of Vancouver's Fraser River, where feet No. 4 and 5 were found. It's possible, they say, that all the feet came from the Fraser.

Across the strait on the Vancouver side, Westham Island is home to fields of strawberries, a bird sanctuary and perhaps 100 residents. It's accessible only by a one-lane bridge.

Commercial salmon fisher Sharon Bennett was walking along her dock last Monday morning when she noticed a large men's Adidas sneaker floating sole-up in the water next to her family's skiff. She fished it out, thinking nothing of it at first. But it felt heavy, she said, and she noticed a sock covering whatever was inside.

"Oh, Sharon, it doesn't look good," her husband said, before calling police. The couple had found foot No. 5.

One of the world's foremost experts on floating objects, oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, of Seattle, said disarticulated feet do show up in oceans from time to time.

It's common for decomposing bodies to come apart at the joints, he said, including at the ankles. He knows of at least two feet turning up in Puget Sound over the past decade. New, lightweight sneakers help keep the remains buoyant, while also protecting remains from birds, by floating sole up.

Still, Ebbesmeyer remains mystified by the number of feet and the lack of accompanying bodies. He would have expected at least some of the remaining body parts to make it ashore.

He said the descriptions of the socks — mere fibers in the case of the Gabriola foot, more intact in the case from Westham Island — could indicate a big variance in the amount of time the feet have been in the water. By tracking serial numbers, he's been able to prove that sneakers have remained afloat and even wearable after three years in the ocean, he added.

Ebbesmeyer said forensic experts may be able to use pollen counts and sediment information from the shoes to track their origin. The Seattle expert said he's been contacted by two families looking for information about missing loved ones, as well as media outlets from around the world. But Canadian authorities haven't sought his advice.

"Back when it happened, it was funny, to be honest," said Gabriola Island resident Jean Wyenberg. "But now it's starting to creep people out."

Finding feet seems to have a different effect on people. Géris said her discovery was more interesting than gruesome, and she didn't think much more about it until other feet started showing up. Bennett, on the other hand, said she's been having trouble sleeping at night, and that the initial shock of her find has been replaced by something more permanent in her subconscious.

Both women, however, long for answers.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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