The Floating Feet
By Steen Hartsen
Beginning in 2007, the coast of British Columbia has been host to an odd phenomenon not seen anywhere else in the world. A significant number of human feet have been washing up on the shores without a body attached them. In total, twelve feet have turned up on beaches on the southwest coast of BC, along with another five in Washington State.
Due to the rapid succession of washed-up feet in such a short period of time, media speculation ran rampant about the cause; hypotheses ranged from an active serial killer to a local gang trying to send a message to rivals. The BC Coroners Service has worked with a range of experts, using anthropology, DNA analysis and Geographic Information Systems to match the feet with individuals who have gone missing from BC.
During the early stages of the investigation, one of the feet found in 2008 was identified as an animal foot wrapped in seaweed and placed in a sock and a shoe. DNA analysis was not required for this case as the anthropologist was able to quickly determine that the bones were not human. The remaining feet were sent for DNA analysis, with a large proportion being examined at the BCIT Forensic DNA laboratory. Metatarsal bones were used for the analysis, and DNA profiles were generated for each of the feet using nuclear DNA analysis.
Investigators were able to determine a subset of likely individuals that could have left the feet based on the year of manufacture of the shoes and the location where the feet were discovered. Using these leads, DNA testing of possible family members was conducted with the hope of matching them to the feet through familial comparisons. Since 2007 when the first feet appeared on the shores of the West Coast, the BCIT Forensic DNA laboratory has transitioned from using Profiler Plus (a DNA amplification kit examining 9 DNA markers) to GlobalFiler (a DNA amplification kit examining 24 markers). This adoption of more advanced technology has allowed us to significantly increase the strength of associations between unidentified human remains and potential family members.
Associations in these cases were able to conclude that the feet belonged to suicide victims or individuals who had died in marine plane crashes. Each foot dis-articulated from the rest of the body under water as decomposition occurred, and the buoyancy of the shoes brought the dis-articulated feet up to the surface. Foul play was ruled out in all cases. Feet continue to occasionally wash up on shore to this day, with two more being found on the west coast of Vancouver Island as recently as February 2016. DNA analysis will be ongoing to identify victims in these cases as they come up, and try to bring closure to families who have lost a loved one.
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