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Unsettling answer to mysterious floating shoe-with-foot

There are likely hundreds of dead human bodies in the waters of the Northwest at any given time.

That means, eventually, a foot entombed in a running shoe will separate from a body – through a complexity of circumstances, natural processes and critters. Then, it will float to the surface and (possibly years later) be discovered along a beach.

That’s the “no-mystery-here” approach coroners in Washington and Vancouver, B.C., take to the occasional discovery of a running shoe with a foot in it. Some call it "the Nike phenomenon."

However, that’s not the most popular way of looking at what seems to be an inordinate number of running shoes with feet in them – 11 to date – found mostly in B.C. but also Washington.

Here’s one popular idea: “There’s a crazed killer cutting people’s feet off and tossing the feet in the ocean!”

The most recent shoe and foot were discovered on Aug. 30 in Vancouver, floating in False Creek. That shoe contained the remains of a human foot in a sock, with leg bones attached.

“I guess people want to know if there’s any indication that what we have found has been mechanically disarticulated, or severed from the leg, and we did not find any evidence,” said Stephen Fonseca, a Vancouver coroner involved in the identification of human remains.

“You know it is very difficult to manually disarticulate joints, you are almost invariably going to leave little impressions, little cut marks, little impressions on the remains. We did not find anything like that,” he said.

Is it all just hype of some sort?

Of the seven previous shoes with feet discovered on B.C. shores since 2007, four have been determined to belong to three people who have been identified, with three feet belonging to two others (one male and one female) as yet unidentified. None of them were separated through foul means. Of the four found in Washington waters, none have been linked to individuals.

Also, several of the feet were not found in running shoes. One was in a hiking boot.

One ex-cop captured the suspicions many have about the cases: Forensics consultant and former Toronto Police detective Mark Mendelson told CTV news on Sept. 1 that with this many feet being found in such a short period of time, he's suspicious something is up.

"I don't know whether you can look at this as just a coincidence," he told CTV's Canada AM Thursday.

“We’re not mystified by it,” said Dr. Kathy Taylor, King County forensic anthropologist. “The important distinction that the media does not seem able to make, that is quite frustrating to me, is the difference between 'severed' and 'disarticulated.'”

In fact, news articles as late as May refer to the incidences as severed feet. News stories also tend to refer to the discoveries as a series. One article said a foot found was not “linked to the others,” implying that the feet were linked or part of a series, and therefore connected by someone or something that has a thing for severing feet.

“I would bet that ten years ago, people would see a tennis shoe and wouldn’t necessarily pick it up and look inside, but I can almost guarantee you now that when people see a tennis shoe, they are going to pick it up,” Taylor said of the effect of the news stories.

“Feet come off and if the tennis shoe floats, I mean, it’s all logical to me,” she concluded.

How many bodies in the water?

In 2010, the latest numbers in the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, there were 85,820 active missing person cases. In Washington, according to a story on missing persons published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer several years ago, there are more than 2,000 missing person cases active at any one time.

The Washington State Missing Persons site lists more than 160 “recent” missing persons age 12 and above. Those are people who have been reported “last seen” mostly from July and August of this year.

The numbers missing in B.C., according to news reports and officials, is about the same.

So, how many of those people could be deceased and in the water?

“From the work that we have been doing, there are multiple, what we call ‘missing and presumed dead,’ out there,” B.C. coroner Fonseca said. “I would think in the triple digits.”

Taylor agreed.

“I would say [the number missing in the water] is very high. A lot of King County’s unidentified have come out of the water.”

Taylor said that of the 42 unidentified remains currently under investigation in King County, six came out of the water. Statewide, there are between 100 and 120 unidentified remains cases and nationally there are more than 7,500. B.C. has more than 200 open remains cases.

“If you were to ask me if I think there are bodies out in the water that have never been found, I would absolutely say 'yes,'” she said.

Take into account, Fonseca added, that the water is typically very cold and the remains can initially be very deep, and you have a situation where a disarticulated foot encased in a shoe can be from a person who has been missing for a long time.

“There’s a number of good reasons why these feet can be quite well preserved. ... It could be years,” he said.

So, who are they?

“The key is identification,” Fonseca said of finding human remains. “What are you going to do to make the identification? That’s where you got to commit your resources. Once you have the identification, now you can start looking at the person’s circumstances of disappearance and that often brings tremendous clarity.”

And, human remains show up on beaches around the world, one expert said, even in running shoes.

The Nike phenomenon reported in 2008 during the first blush of fame for the B.C. feet, that a right foot in a sock was in New Zealand, a right foot in a high-top runner in the Ottawa River in Ottawa, two feet on Chesil Beach in southern England, two in Spain, one in California and another in Merseyside in the U.K.

“I think you could probably trace it to the Nike phenomenon. Nike was the one that really brought in the air soles,” said Curtis Ebbesmeyer, world renown oceanographer and beachcomber extraordinaire. “Certainly in the ‘90s, Nike was a major producer of shoes with gas injected soles. Once you start doing that then you have at least part of the phenomenon.”

At the beginning of his career in the early 1960s, Ebbesmeyer said he understood that the surface of the ocean was “virtually undiscovered.” Where surface currents run and where things go that end up in the water, either accidentally or intentionally, was simply unknown. So, he began his research and also created a newsletter for beachcombers and established a network of them.

More than just feet

Over the years, a friend of Ebbesmeyer's found a femur; some boys found the glove of a survival suit with fingers in it in a bear den (the person had come from a ship); a jaw bone from another sailor was found in a fox den, and many other examples.

In little more than a year, Ebbesmeyer added, some of the thousands of victims of the Japanese tsunami will reach our shores.

“So, there are human remains everywhere along the shore,” he said. “It’s just most of the time they’re not going to get reported or discovered or they’ve been eaten.”

Ebbesmeyer and the coroners say the main thing is to call the authorities if you happen upon human remains anywhere, because they have a name and probably someone is missing them.

“I urge people, if you see something on the beach that looks like human remains, call the police. … Don’t shy away from it, because you could be helping a family with the only piece of remains they are ever going to have.”