A media frenzy erupted over the mystery of seven feet found in sneakers along the shores of British Columbia and Washington state. Between August 2007 and November 2008 six of the feet were found along the Georgia Strait, which separates Vancouver Island from the mainland. The first four reported were right feet, a statistical oddity which fueled the frenzy.
"Was a madman at work with a bizarre foot fetish?", inquired some in the media.
The next two feet to be reported were lefts, but that did not quell the frenzy which had by then grown worldwide. Deliberate dismemberment seemed unlikely as police found no cut marks on the bones.
As well as the right-left asymmetry, statistical lopsidedness extended to sex and size. The six came in just three sizes: size 12 (2 sneakers); size 10.5 (2); size 7 (2), and four were men’s feet versus two from women. Oddity did not extend to sneaker brand as the six feet were encased in four sneaker brands: Nike (2 sneakers); New Balance (2); Adidas (1); Reebok (1).
A seventh sneaker possibly related to the other six appeared in Washington across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Another turned out to be a gruesome hoax authorities called "an animal paw" in a sneaker.
As the frenzy proceeded, I received calls from people who had lost loved ones to the water. The best advice I could offer was for them to send DNA samples which authorities might compare with the remains found in the sneakers. DNA samples matched the foot found on Jedediah Island (#1 in the Table and Map) to a known missing person but authorities have withheld the name. DNA also matched two pair of the feet. Cases # 3 and #5 in size 10.5 Nikes came from the same unidentified male, and cases #4 and #7 in size 7 New Balance sneakers from the same unidentified female.
In summary, the DNA tests indicated that the remains of four people washed up in sneakers. One has been identified, and two pair are from two people leaving three people yet to be identified.
Foot summary. The first four reported were right feet, a statistical oddity which fueled worldwide media.
1. Jedediah Island, August 20, 2007, male, right foot, size 12, Adidas sneaker;
2. Gabriola Island, August 26, 2007, male, right foot, size 12, Reebok sneaker;
3. Valdes Island, February 8, 2008, male, right foot, size 10.5, Nike sneaker;
4. Kirkland Island, Fraser River, May 22, 2008, female, right foot, size 7 New Balance sneaker;
5. Westham Island, near mouth of Fraser River, June 16, 2008, male, left foot, Nike size 10.5 sneaker;
[Hoax: Campbell River, June 18, 2008, apparent foot, size 10, Adidas sneaker.
6. Juan de Fuca Strait, August 1, 2008;
7. Richmond, November 11, 2008, female, left foot, size 7, New Balance sneaker.
Is the phenomenon of feet washing up in shoes occurring more recently than in the past? In my experience, police and medical examiners are reluctant to report human remains to the media for fear of copy cats. The hoax in the present case provides and example. Once the right feet gained notoriety, beachcombers were on the lookout for more. Then an important insight came from an unexpected source.
As Eric Scigliano and me were finishing our book Flotsametrics and the Floating World (see www.flotsametrics.com), we received a note from the mystery writer Katherine Beck (a.k.a. K.K. Beck). "Just wanted to let you know that I once knew a troubled young man who fell into an icy fjord in Alaska some years ago after a long shift at a fish cannery and a case of beer, and while stealing a boat – a really tragic thing. Anyway. his feet bobbed up much later and many miles apart – one of them snagged by a fly fisherman from a riverbank. Apparently, while the sea used to swallow the dead, now because of buoyant athletic shoes, feet wearing them routinely detach themselves after a certain amount of crab activity on the bottom and float to the surface. So apparently, it isn’t that amazing that these things wash up, and the authorities in Alaska told his parents that it happens all the time."
As to whether there is a trend over time of feet stranding in sneakers, there are a number of factors to consider. Arguing for no trend is the fact that Nike and other manufacturers have been producing buoyant sneakers since the 1980s. Every few years since the great sneaker spill of 1990 when 80,000 sneakers fell overboard, container loads of footwear have floated the seas. People from all walks of life are now wearing sneakers. Arguing for an increasing trend is fact that in recent years the population around the shores of the Strait of Georgia has rapidly increased. There is an increasing trend of people who go missing and are not reported.
Where do the feet come from? Most likely from the official tally of 2,400 persons missing in British Columbia. Some of these enter the water where, based on my experience, something like half will sink and half will initially float. Over time, the body separates in a process called disarticulation, at the joints into component parts of arms, legs, torso, hands, fingers and so on for a total of twenty some parts. As the feet bloat they become wedged in the sneaker and if the foot separates from the leg, the sneaker’s buoyance may bring it to the water surface where the shoe-foot becomes a surface drifter that moves around from the combined effects of winds, waves, tides and estuarine currents. Eventually the foot falls out of the shoe, and only the foot-sneaker combination is reported. Single sneakers found on the shore without a foot inside are not newsworthy and thus are not reported.
Why in the Strait of Georgia? My view is that the media have focused attention there because of the initial string of right feet — there is a one in sixteen chance that four right would be found in sequence at random — that beachcombers reported. Over the past decades, I’ve collected accounts of human remains stranded round the world. Feet in sneakers have washed up in my home waters of Puget Sound, but they only rated a column inch or so in local newspapers. There is a high population density around the Strait of Georgia. Once the citizenry learned of feet in sneakers they were on the look out and reported more.
Finally, as disarticulation proceeds, the right and left feet separate from the body. The lefts and rights drift in different directions and so fetch up on different shores.
See the map of recoveries by Rick Anderson, Seattle Weekly, The Seven Foot Mystery, December 9, 2008.