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DNA tests match feet washed ashore

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER — DNA analysis has matched a pair of the feet that have washed up on B.C. shores this year, confirming they are from the same female and providing a small advance for investigators trying to solve the mystery that has drawn global attention.

“It helps. It allows us to confirm two cases are now one so investigators can focus,” said Jeff Dolan of the B.C. Coroner's Service.

The service yesterday matched a right foot found last May 22 on Kirkland Island with a left foot found on Nov. 11 in Richmond's Finn Slough.

Investigators from the RCMP, Delta Police Department and coroner's service are now trying to figure out whose feet they are.

“It's definitely good,” Gail Anderson, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University who studies the decomposition of remains, said last night. “It means there's not an extra person that's dead that we did not know about. It means we have been able to link one body together.”

All but one of the feet have been found on B.C.'s southwest coast. The other was found in Washington State.

Before yesterday's disclosure, only one foot had been identified. It belonged to a depressed man thought to have taken his own life.

“This person has not yet, unfortunately, been identified by DNA, and that's obviously because some family member has not yet come forward to say, ‘I'm missing a family member,' and so they could put their DNA on record,” Prof. Anderson said.

The challenge now, she said, is somehow to match the DNA in the paired female feet with those of a missing person.

All of the running-shoe clad feet appear to have naturally separated – a biological process referred to as disarticulation – from their bodies due to water temperature, marine life and decomposition.

Officials say there is no evidence such as tool marks that any of the feet have been intentionally cut loose.

Prof. Anderson said she thinks there is less of a mystery to the case than people might expect.

“Unfortunately, if you look at the records, there's an incredibly large number of people missing in British Columbia for various reasons, and not necessarily to do with foul play. If, in some way, either through deliberately going into the water or coming off a boat or plane or even a misadventure on a kayak or something a body ends up in the water then what happens is a natural disarticulation process and the body breaks apart,” she said.

Hands, feet and the head break off easily because there is relatively little holding them on, she said.

Running shoes are especially good flotation devices. “You'll notice that every single one of these feet has been in a running shoe, not a stiletto shoe, not a bare foot. Basically, it's attached to a little flotation device. That's why I think the feet are coming ashore.”

She noted that people are now more attentive to random running shoes in shore areas given the enormous publicity around the case, making them more likely to find such remains.

“It's quite possible that many of these situations in the past have been not noticed.”

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