In 2007 a little girl was visiting Jedediah Island in British Columbia, Canada, when her vacation took a dark turn. She was in fact on the coast when she found a man’s shoe apparently abandoned on the shore. And innocently, the girl decided to take a peek inside. But then she discovered a sight worthy of a horror movie.
Unbeknown to her, you see, the youngster had stumbled upon the remains of an unfortunate soul. This person’s foot had been left behind in a size 12 sports shoe, in fact. Yet although the incident was undoubtedly enough to scar anyone for life, it was not the last of its kind to occur on the Salish Sea’s shores. Severed feet have actually washed up on a regular basis.
Between 2007 and February 2019, for instance, a reported total of 20 human feet have came to shore on the coasts of Vancouver in Canada and Washington in the United States. And as a result of the grisly mysteries, rumors have started to emerge. These include whispers of a serial killer, extraterrestrial abductions, aviation accidents and natural disasters.
So how is this happening? Well, the Salish Sea is made up of a complex system of coastal waterways that lie between British Columbia in Canada and Washington in the United States. The body of water stretches from Desolation Sound in the north of the Strait of Georgia to the south of the Puget Sound. The Strait of Juan de Fuca sits to the west of the sea too.
Yet the inland sections of the Salish Sea are somewhat separated from the rest of the Pacific Ocean by the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island. And as a result, these waters are protected a little from ocean storms. So while the so-called sea is actually a series of inlets, sounds and straits, together they create one watery ecosystem.
And the Salish Sea is a thriving ecosystem, at that. Its waters are home to at least 253 species of fish, in fact. And the sea also plays host to the southern resident orca. However, the species’ population is in decline due to dwindling salmon numbers. Northern resident orcas additionally visit the area, mind you. The numbers of this seal-eating species are on the up too.
On land, meanwhile, more than seven million people live in the Salish Sea drainage basin – which extends over approximately 42,000 square miles. Major cities in this area include Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo in Canada, and Seattle, Olympia and Bellingham in the U.S. But while the Salish Sea is a major waterway in the Pacific Northwest region, it has recently gained notoriety for an altogether different reason.
It all began in August 2007 when a little girl was visiting Jedediah Island in British Columbia (B.C.) from neighboring Washington. While on the coast, as we’ve heard, the girl found an Adidas sneaker still containing its sock. And when she opened the shoe up to look inside, the youngster must have been horrified to find a man’s right foot.
Experts were later able to determine that the shoe in which the foot was found had been produced in 2003. The sneaker was white and blue in color and had been predominately sold throughout India. And then it was revealed that the foot had belonged to a missing person believed to have been experiencing depression.
But the gruesome discovery would not be the last of its kind on the Salish coast. Just a few days after this incident, in fact, a couple found a second severed foot. This time the body part was located on Gabriola Island, B.C., though. The foot was further contained inside a white Reebok size 12 shoe – believed to have been produced three years earlier in 2004.
Then, in February 2008, yet another right foot was found inside a Nike sneaker, this time on Valdes Island, B.C. And later that summer, in June 2008, a matching left foot was found on Westham Island, B.C. This was later actually confirmed to have belonged to the same person. That individual was also determined to have been a 21-year-old male from Surrey, B.C., who had been missing for four years.
That same year another pair of feet were identified to belong to a woman. The first was found in May 2008 on Kirkland Island, B.C., and had been contained in a sock and a New Balance sneaker. The second was found on the Fraser River in Richmond, B.C., later that year in November. It had been discovered in a matching shoe too. DNA testing again indicated that the remains had belonged to the same person.
It was also in 2008 that the first foot was found beyond the boundaries of British Columbia. Yes, in August 2008 a male’s shoe was found washed ashore close to Pysht, Washington. The location of the extremity was less than 10 miles from the international border with Canada, though. The shoe was covered in seaweed but found to contain human bones and flesh.
Yet after the spate of human feet findings in 2008, only one was discovered on the Salish coast in 2009. The body part was found packaged in a Nike sneaker in Richmond, B.C. And it was later determined to have belonged to a man from the Vancouver area whose disappearance had been noted in January 2008.
Then the next foot to be found in the area was on Whidbey Island, Washington, in August 2010. It was believed to have been the foot of a woman or a minor. The body part had been discovered bare, unconfined by any footwear. Experts determined that it had been submerged for some two months, though. And after performing tests, scientists were unable to establish a DNA match.
Another small foot was spotted in December 2010 on the mudflats at Tacoma, Washington. Speaking shortly after the grim discovery, police spokesperson Mark Fulghum revealed more details. “The right foot was still inside a boy’s size 6 Ozark Trail hiking boot,” he said. “[It] likely belonged to a juvenile or small adult.”
And an even more grisly finding occurred in August 2011. It was then in fact that another foot – with its leg bones still attached – was found in False Creek, B.C. The body part had been spotted floating by the Plaza of Nations marina in a white and blue running shoe. And its discovery left one coroner stumped. “There was no obvious trauma to the remains,” Stephen Fonseca told HuffPost in 2011. “So we’re certainly at a loss as to the cause of this.”
But another foot was found inside a walking boot in a freshwater pool at Sasamat Lake, B.C., in November 2011. And unfortunately the body part was discovered by a child who had been part of a gang of campers. The foot was later determined to have belonged to fisherman Stefan Zahorujko, who had disappeared back in 1987.
In December 2011 a volunteer working with the homeless community in Seattle, Washington, found a human foot and leg bone in a plastic bag beneath the Ship Canal Bridge. Shortly after, Heroes for the Homeless founder Tricia Lapitan described the horror that had been stumbled upon. “I guess it was from the knee down, and it was pretty decomposed,” Lapitan told The Seattle Times.
The next discovery came in January 2012. This was when the Vancouver Police Department revealed “what appears to be human bones inside a boot” had been located next to the city’s Maritime Museum. After that, there were no more foot findings on the Salish coast until May 2014. Then, you see, another human foot washed up in Seattle.
There was another gap of around two years between that find and the next foot discovered, though. This latter body part was found by hikers on Vancouver Island in February 2016. And like so many before it, the extremity was contained in a sock and sneaker. Another foot washed up nearby five days later – and coroners confirmed that it had belonged to the same person.
A third foot washed up on Vancouver Island in December 2017 too. A person taking his dogs out for a walk near the Jordan River came across the shocking find and alerted the authorities. The Sooke Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the B.C. Coroners Service consequently arrived to the spot. And the latter set about attempting to identify the remains.
Another foot was then found on Gabriola Island, B.C., in May 2018. A man had been traipsing along the coast when he came across a walking boot that concealed the body part, jammed in a pile of logs. And a few months later, another shoe was found in West Vancouver. It too contained a human foot, believed to have belonged to a male younger than 50 years old.
The latest foot reported to have washed up in the area was found in January 2019. Beachgoers on Jetty Island in Everett, Washington, came across the body part concealed within a boot. The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office later confirmed that the foot was that of Antonio Neill, a 22-year-old who disappeared in December 2016.
So between August 2007 and January 2019 some 20 feet have been discovered in the area. The so-called “Salish Sea human foot discoveries” have become quite the phenomenon too. So much so that the British Columbia Coroners Service has even created a map detailing the locations in which severed feet have been found so far.
And given the macabre nature of the phenomenon, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the mysterious feet have given rise to a number of conspiracy theories. Some have suggested that the body parts are the result of a serial killer. Others believe they may belong to the victims of an aviation accident or natural disaster. While one disturbing theory claims that there could be a stock of dead bodies hidden in the Salish Sea.
In 2008 the person who discovered the fifth foot told The Guardian, “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.”
Given the attention afforded to the feet, then, some pranksters couldn’t resist stirring the pot and getting in on the act. “We’ve had people put dog foot skeletons in runners and leave them on the beach,” coroner worker Barb McLintock informed The Guardian in 2016. “And somebody even used old chicken bones.”
Despite all the conspiracy theories surrounding the detached feet, though, the British Columbia Coroners Service is convinced that there’s a simple explanation for the glut of washed-up body parts. “[We have] been able to identify eight of the previous 12 feet, belonging to six individuals,” the agency told Vox in February 2019. “In none of the cases was any foul play involved.”
McLintock, for one, is sure that the severed feet aren’t the outcome of a serial killer’s doings, either. Nor, indeed, does she believe they are the result of anything else out of the ordinary or sinister in nature. The coroners office has instead ruled that all the individuals to which the feet belonged likely died as a result of an accident or suicide.
So one of the reasons that feet pop up regularly around the Salish Sea is supposedly because of the sheer amount of corpses in the depths. Sadly, you see, it’s common for people to drown within any significant water-bodies. And these kinds of incidents become even more regular when shoreline populations are high – like on the Salish Sea.
McLintock therefore believes that the feet become separated from the rest of the bodies as part of natural decomposition. She revealed, after all, that none of the remains had any signs of trauma. “None of them have had anything like that,” McLintock told The Guardian. “All the evidence is pointed to just this natural articulation process.”
What’s more, submersion in water can actually speed up the decomposition process. And due to the fact that most of the washed up extremities were still wearing shoes, they had enough protection from the water and the appetites of sea creatures to enable them to stay intact.
Yet while that may explain how the feet could come loose and wash up on shore, people still wondered why the body parts only started to wash up after 2007. And it seems that the answer may lie in developments in shoe design. That’s because more and more sneakers now incorporate elements which serve to improve their buoyancy – allowing them to float to the coastline.
In a statement to Vox, Gail Anderson from British Columbia’s Center for Forensic Research at Simon Fraser University seemed to support this theory. “Feet easily disarticulate and when they are attached to a flotation device such as a running shoe, they are easily washed ashore,” she said. “Notice there are no feet washing ashore in stiletto heels or flip-flops. Also, today’s running shoes are much more buoyant than in the past.”
Oceanography professor Parker MacCready from University of Washington has explained how the geography of the Salish Sea has influenced the feet into coming to shore too. “Things that float at the ocean surface move with the currents, but also are pushed a bit by the wind,” he told Vox. “And this can be significant in getting them to shore.”
MacCready went on to reveal what this meant for the Salish Sea. “The prevailing winds here [around the Salish Sea] are west to east,” he said. “And so floating stuff in this part of the Pacific gets blown to the coast effectively.” This makes it easy for decomposing body parts to wash up on shore in the area.
But while shoes have helped to keep the feet relatively intact, they often make it difficult to trace their wearers. “The ones I have seen are not fresh feet,” forensic anthropologist Kathy Taylor from King County Medical Examiner’s Office revealed to Vox. “They’ve been in the water for a long time, with significant decomposition.”
Some DNA found on the washed up feet has been so severely damaged by salt water that it actually often cannot be tested. Furthermore, any identifying bodily marks including tattoos are likely to have been worn away by sea water. Taylor is therefore campaigning to have shoe size included as a category in missing person reports so that a foot might be more easily identified next time one washes up on shore.