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More and more sneakers are washing up on beaches in the Vancouver area. To the horror of those who find them the feet are still inside. The police are stumped. The media have a field day. Where are they coming from? Who could be behind these macabre discoveries? The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have engaged a profiler from Ottawa. Time is of the essence, since the Winter Olympics are just around the corner. Follow the twists and turns of the pursuit from Vancouver south along the US west coast and back again!
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Translated from German by
Ingrid Dubberke (Chicago)
Cover designed by
Julia Gruner (Cologne)
“Sigh no more ladies, sigh no more. Men were
deceivers ever. One foot in the sea and one on shore.
To one thing constant ever.”
(“Much Ado about Nothing”)
“What of shoes? What, shoes? Whose are the shoes?
What are they made of? And even, who are they?
Here they are, the questions, that’s all.”
(“Restitutions of the Truth in Pointure”)
With all the force he can muster the man brings the baseball bat down on the leg. The breaking bone sounds like a bursting earthenware jug followed by a smacking echo. The victim doesn’t cry out or double up with pain. He doesn’t move at all. The young man is dead. When the bat shatters his shin there is no life left in him.
The corpse is lying on its back on a workbench cleared of debris, fully clothed. Underneath the collar of a grey Gap sweatshirt gleams a white t-shirt. The dark jogging pants end just above the socks peeking out of the sneakers and covering the ankle. The baseball bat made contact with the right leg precisely on the narrow piece of skin showing between pants and socks.
Shuffling steps echo in the tall space. A neon tube is suspended above the workbench by two chains. Its cold light illuminates only the death plank and part of the wall to its side where various tools are arranged: socket and ratchet sets, pliers, screwdrivers, torque wrenches, coil spring compressors, below them an impact wrench in a holder. The background is dark. Blue smoke snakes towards the light. It smells like automobile grease, tires and cigarette smoke.
A large powerful man dressed in greasy overalls is leaning over the body assessing the damaged leg. He takes a last drag from his cigarette before flicking it to the floor. As his huge hands grab the motionless body and turn it on its stomach the hood of his sweatshirt becomes visible. Again he inspects the corpse. With rotating fingers he touches the skin above the right Achilles tendon. Then he grabs the baseball bat with both hands and delivers another powerful blow. As the fibula splinters he emits a satisfied grunt. Visibly excited, he lights another cigarette and puts it in the left corner of his mouth. From a spacious drawer in his workbench he extracts a three-arm battery terminal puller and puts it on the stool next to him. With a rubber sleeve the man in the overalls attaches a thick board to the sole of the jogging shoe, now extending over the edge of the bench. He wraps another rubber sleeve around the corpse’s lower leg. That’s where he places the arms of the tool, then positions its base on the board attached to the shoe. With the first revolution one hears a grinding, crunching noise. He continues cranking. Skin, muscles and tendons around the broken bones are stretched to the breaking point. He helps it along with a piece of broken glass and turns some more. The sharp edge continues to rip into the bloody tissue and suddenly the shoe with the foot breaks loose. Two broken bones protrude from the ripped flesh. The man holds the shoe and its contents in his left hand, the cigarette in his right and swirls them above his head like a trophy. He seems ecstatic.
Georgia Strait is a busy waterway between the Canadian mainland and Vancouver Island – about 150 miles long and up to 35 miles wide. It represents the inside passage to Alaska. Thousands of freighters with all kinds of cargo pass through these straits, which produce a powerful current of about ten knots. All year long tugboats transport huge tree trunks between the Fraser River and the lumber industry’s commercial harbors farther north. Air taxis ferry passengers between Vancouver and the big island to the west. The Pacific looks peaceful.
Such is the case this weekend in August 2007: The family from nearby Washington State enjoys the late summer sun on their boat. Hundreds of white sails glide across the smooth surface. White foam spray glistens in the shimmering light. Innumerable islets line Georgia Strait on both sides. Most of them are covered with evergreens, many uninhabited and reachable only by boat or seaplane. The visitors from the States decide to add on another day in this paradise.
Jedediah Island is an islet squeezed in between two that are a bit larger – Texada and Lasqueti. It lies like a plug right smack in the middle of the current. Rocky outcrops are covered with mosses, trees downed by wind lie where they fell. A few old wooden huts are scattered on the cliffs. The interior consists of a large ancient and totally treeless meadow. A pile of rocks marks the highest elevation, Mount Jibraltar.
It is Monday, August 20th. The family from Washington State dropped anchor on the northwest side in Deep Bay and spent the night on their boat. Now they are exploring the island. A completely unexpected adventure is awaiting them about which they will talk for the rest of their lives. What has washed up on the beach between the rocks is obviously a running shoe, white with blue markings on the heel, toecap and sides. But when the mother moves in for a closer look she feels her blood turning to ice. She lets out a loud scream.
The police report in the local paper talks about a discovery on Jedediah Island. A running shoe containing not only a sock, but also a foot. No further details are available yet. The matter is being investigated.
Six days later a white Reebok running shoe size 12 washes up on Gabriola Island southwest of Jedediah. On February 8, 2008, a blue and white men’s Nike running shoe size 11 “walks” onto the east side beach of Valdez Island. Nationwide publicity is now assured. All three finds consist of right side men’s feet stuck with their socks inside the shoes.
In the Vancouver daily The Province, founded in 1898, Deputy Police Chief Geoff Nolan is quoted as saying: “The fact that we have discovered three very similar pieces of mortal remains revealed by a particular waterway, is something we have never before encountered.”
The coroner of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, David Firestone, adds that it is impossible to tell where the feet are coming from – whether from one single source, such as an accident, or from different incidents: “It is, in the true sense of the word, a fluid situation. The shoes may have come from anywhere. They appear because they float along and then land somewhere.”
There is no DNA match between them. So the police handle all three finds as separate cases. But unofficially a different theory is already being weighed. The possibility that three different men who most likely lost their lives could have been separated from their feet by different methods is astronomically unlikely.
The files of missing persons are being scoured and accidents at sea investigated: On November 23, 2003, the rusty refrigerated ship “Black Dragon” sank in Georgia Strait, having transported illegal aliens from China to Vancouver Island as far back as 1999. In the meantime, all of British Columbia is speculating. Violent crime is mentioned as well as mafia murders, a plane crash, Tsunami victims, suicides and fishermen swept overboard in a storm.
On May 22, 2008, a man is walking his dog on uninhabited Kirkland. This island is located in the southern arm of the Fraser just before it empties into Georgia Strait, about 16 miles south of Vancouver and west of the Massey Tunnels. The dog has discovered something and starts to bark. When his master inspects the blue and white sport shoe more closely he immediately drops it in horror.
Number 4 is also a right shoe. But today something is different. The dog owner had already noticed that this one was kind of small. It is a woman’s size 7 “New Balance”. With the find of a woman’s foot a series seems to end and another one obviously begins. Press representative Anne Rondeau of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) tells the Associated Press: “This is a mystery for sure, a very unusual one, which we are trying to solve.” In the meantime the top medical examiner of British Columbia, Chief Coroner Perry Myers, has taken over the case. So far he has not found any genetic matches. Next, DNA comparisons of missing persons will be conducted. Also unsolved is whether the shoe floated down the Fraser River or whether the tides washed it back up onto the northern side of Kirkland.
“The first find was something of a curiosity,” writes Gerry Bellett in the Vancouver Sun, “the second was a nasty shock. The third turned it into a mysterious riddle and the fourth moves the whole situation into some sort of a twilight zone. At this point Sherlock Holmes would have said to his faithful Watson: Something is going on here.”
The focus turns to a 2005 plane crash off Quadra Island. The four occupants were never found. Now the family of the victims is putting pressure on authorities. However, they will admit only that two of the found shoes were size 12, the same as one of the crash victim’s shoe size.
Unsolicited, a US expert in ocean currents surfaces and lectures that the parts of human bodies decomposing in water would normally show up together: two arms, two legs, two feet, the head and the torso. Therefore, up to 30 or 40 body parts should have been discovered. But only four feet were found. So where is the rest of the corpses? That is the big question on everyone’s mind.
On Monday, June 16, 2008, two people out for a walk come across a partially decomposed foot in a running shoe on the beach 16 miles south of Vancouver on the island of Westham near Ladner at the mouth of the Fraser – just a few miles from the previous find. The tips of the toes are said to be missing. The brown soles of the Reeboks sprout growths like one finds on mussels. The remains of fly larvae are stuck to the clump of flesh.
Ladner is an idyllic place. The only crime in years involved up-and-coming ice hockey star Harry Scholasky who was sentenced to three years probation for voyeurism. In 2006 he had videotaped a buddy’s girl friend with a hidden camera while she performed oral sex and then posted it on the Internet.
This time around the media attention is global. Again one series seems to end and a new one beginning. For the first time a left foot is found. The small island is scoured meticulously by federal police, forensic specialists, journalists and the merely curious.
The police in the delta are under pressure. There are no leads in the “saga of the lost feet” as the local press dubs the case.
Dark memories of horrific crimes are dragged to the surface again: On December 9, 2007, a jury found serial killer Robert “Willie” Pickton from Port Coquitlam east of Vancouver guilty of the second-degree murder of 6 prostitutes. He was sentenced to life in prison and with no parole for 25 years. During the trial more and more gruesome details about the “piggy palace” of the pig farmer were revealed. One witness saw him skin a victim as the young woman was hanging from a hook. The prosecutor accused the pig breeder of having killed and dismembered a total of 26 prostitutes. Willie Pickton admitted to having killed 49 women. According to police the farmer hired the drug addicted ladies of the night in the red light district of Vancouver and brought them to his farm. There he had them perform sex acts before killing and dismembering them. As one witness claimed, he let them bleed out and then fed them to his pigs. Supposedly he even took some of the body parts to an animal product recycling facility. Later Pickton retracted his confession and filed an appeal. The case provided headlines world-wide.
“Didn’t I say Willie should not be freed?”, one blogger posted on the Internet in reference to the movie “Free Willie”.
“Something out there is producing human feed in alarming quantity”, reads the sarcastic remark in the daily ‘Seattle Times’. Maybe the unusually high number of missing persons in British Columbia has something to do with it: 2,371 people are officially listed as missing by the RCMP as of the end of May 2008. In the meantime, hints are arriving in Canada from around the world. Since 2004 a total of eight feet are supposed to have been discovered along coasts all over the world – one in New Zealand, one stuck in a sport shoe in Ottawa, two at Chesil Beach in the south of England, two in Spain, one in California and another one in British Metropolitan County Merseyside near Liverpool.
The unasked expert chimes in again and announces that he is in the process of writing a book about ocean currents and flotsam in the Pacific along the North American coast. According to him running shoes with air chambers in the sole can float in the water for great distances, up to 1,000 nautical miles. Sneakers hold up particularly well in salt water and protect their contents from disintegrating.
Police spokeswoman Anne Rondeau had asked the public for help. She did not have to wait long for tips. Why don’t you investigate the disappearance of the nine men in the Lower Mainland? After a period of two years these are considered as having disappeared without a trace in the southern part of the province. All of them were close in age, between 18 and 30 years old, and all of similar stature. Those are the kinds of comments being posted on Facebook.
The media are pressing for answers too, but the police are not forthcoming with a lot of new information. The investigations are protracted and complicated. “This is not CSI”, according to the spokeswoman. Chief Coroner Perry Myers is collaborating with forensic specialist Mike Spitz from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby. In addition to preserving DNA it is important to study any distinctive features of the feet. For this purpose they are boiled for hours in order to remove the flesh from the bones. Cartilage, bones and joints offer clues about age and possible accidents.
Sandie Buggs is beside herself. All of a sudden everything in her life is important. What’s more, just a few hours ago she was only responsible for the camping grounds outside the small fishing village of Campbell River. Now everyone is competing for her attention: police, journalists and residents. This Wednesday morning she started out with a short walk during which she found a black Adidas jogging shoe, a right one, with the foot still in it. From her office she alerted the custodians of the law and guided them to her find.
“The foot looked as though it had been sawed off. The two bones were sticking out”, she told one and all, whether they wanted to hear it or not. This seems to end another chapter in the foot saga. Up to now authorities had always stressed that there was no evidence of any tool marks. ”Like it was sawed off,” repeats Sandie Buggs over and over, telling every reporter. Even they are being turned into interrogation subjects. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation drags one of them in front of a camera for a live broadcast. CNN, BBC, the New York Times, The Guardian and other papers from Europe, India and South Africa are asking the crucial questions: Where are the feet coming from and why are they washing up en masse in this particular location?
Myers and Spitz are putting in an overnight shift. The next morning Anne Rondeau announces that obviously some jesters must have played a crude joke. The supposed sixth find turns out to be from an animal cadaver – carefully stuffed into a sock along with some algae and placed on a beach for the fun of it.
Behind the scenes rumors are rampant. The Chief Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police from far away Ottawa phones his deputy in Vancouver: “What is going on over there in Division E? Can’t you guys get a handle on this? “
“Sir, this is an infuriating situation. This case has our full attention and we are employing all available resources. There has never been anything remotely like this. We are navigating terra incognita here,” Ball tries to soothe.
“I am looking at the translation of an ORF story on my desk in front of me. That must be a station in Vienna. They are accusing us of obviously sloppy work. Isn’t that the same country where a perverse swine imprisoned and raped a girl for eight and a half years? Where a father incarcerated his own daughter in a basement prison and fathered several children with her? How dare they? They claim all the sites were close to each other. I checked the map. The first find on Jedediah Island and the islands in the Fraser are 100 miles apart. That is almost as far as the size of Austria. The nerve! I’m ready to blow my stack. I don’t want to read any more of this kind of garbage. In any case, you have to be more aggressive in handling the media,” the Chief orders, “as soon as you have something concrete, make it public. This is no time to hold back. Is that clear, Ball?”
“Yes Sir, understood!”
A little later Myers and Spitz indeed discover something new and Ball calls a press conference for Thursday, July 10, 2008. The conference room at RCMP headquarters in Vancouver is packed. Camera teams and reporters from all over the world are present. Police spokeswoman Anne Rondeau and constable Peter Eisenhut carry the show and face the shower of flashlights. A map of the Georgia Strait area hangs on the wall behind them. Photos of the five shoes are tacked to the sites where they were found. Rondeau’s petite figure is almost completely hidden by the massive lectern. But she knows how to carry herself. Her uniform is flawless, even the dark tie looks perfect. Her hair is tied back severely. Then she speaks the two key sentences into the microphone:
“It seems that all five feet were disarticulated from their bodies by natural processes. Feet numbers 3 and 5 belong to the same man.”
A murmur goes through the room. In answer to the first questions the pretty policewoman reiterates her replies. There is no evidence of any kind of violent separation of the feet such as by sawing. Everything points to natural decomposition. No traces of any tools or visible injuries were found. DNA comparisons showed without a doubt that the last foot found on Westham and the one found in February on Valdez are a match and therefore belong to the same body.
All five feet are stuck in different makes of running shoes: Adidas, Campus, Reebok, New Balance and Nike. Constable Eisenhut displays enlargements of the different shoes and the photojournalists immediately take pictures of them. Their former contents have been removed. Two of the sneakers are size 12, two are size 11 and one is a 7, Anne Rondeau explains. None of their former owners could be identified so far. DNA tests have excluded 130 of 243 missing persons, but age or race could not be determined as yet. These particular models of shoes were produced between 1999 and 2004 and for the most part marketed globally.
In September a plastic foot in a gym shoe shows up on a beach in eastern Vancouver.
On Wednesday, November 12, 2008, a woman is taking her three dogs for a walk on Lulu Island near Richmond along the banks of the Fraser. They discover a gym shoe, a left one, stuck between two tree trunks. This one too is not empty. It is a huge shock for this passerby and a tragic experience: She had lost her son in this location 20 years before. He drowned in the Fraser. Since this is another “New Balance” model, Anne Rondeau explains to the press that tests will determine whether there is a match with the previously found foot.
Then another find is made public: On Olympic Peninsula in Washington State about 30 miles west of Port Angeles in the Strait of Juan de Fuca a foot in a running shoe is found.
Does that mean that another series is ending? All previous finds were made on islands. Does a peninsula outside of Canada count? Not really.
This development is a catastrophe for the police. Ball is getting an ear full. His boss in Ottawa is not exactly pleased with the state of investigations into the foot saga in Vancouver and takes action:
“This just cannot continue any longer. I’m going to send you my best investigator. Profiler is what these people are called nowadays. He is not one of these psychobabble idiots but someone who goes after the perpetrator tenaciously. He has his own methods and I wish that you give him all possible support. What we need now are results.”
Kevin Conrad is in his early 30’s, about 6’1” in height, slim and athletic, with short dark brown hair and brown eyes which seem to look at the world with a somewhat sad expression. This is the policeman with the nose for the suspect, as one of his bosses once characterized him. He had distanced himself more and more from the usual method of conducting investigations. His career was shaped by various workshops and specialized training courses. Since attending seminars at Scotland Yard in London and the FBI in Seattle he has been in demand across the country to help solve difficult cases. His marriage did not survive such an unsettled lifestyle. A policeman’s fate.
On Monday, November 17, 2008, as requested, Conrad checks in with Deputy Commissioner Larry Ball at RCMP Headquarters in Vancouver, 37thStreet near Queen Elizabeth Park. “So you are the investigative genius, the secret weapon from our capital,” the police chief greets him. “You will enlighten us greenhorns on how to deal with these jogging shoe feet. Well, I’m all ears. You will be assigned to RCMP Division E, Vancouver Island District, Major Crimes Division. You’ll report to me directly. Our media expert, Constable Anne Rondeau, will show you around. Good luck, inspector!”
“Thank you, Sir. Everyone knows that the Mounties have a reputation for being persistent and in the end they always get their man.” Then he adds in a slightly softer tone of voice, “But I have to ask for your indulgence. I have been instructed to always inform Ottawa first.” “Good, then you will inform me immediately after,” Ball mumbles. “One more thing, Sir. I will need an assistant to work with me so I won’t be bogged down by routine tasks.” “I will put Rondeau at your disposal. But she cannot neglect her press duties. You can have the office next to hers.” “I thank you.”
Rondeau and Eisenhut have set up shop for the profiler in the large media room. They have laid out photos of the jogging shoes and maps of the areas where they were found. Conrad takes a deep breath. He had already memorized the maps before his flight to Vancouver.
“What about feet 4 and 7? Do they belong to the same person?” the inspector interrupts.
“The forensic team is still working on it,” Anne answers, “and it’ll be a little while longer.”
“What about specialists? Who is working on the case? We need to consult forensic anthropologists and pathologists, climatologists and oceanographers. Have you contacted the respective experts?” Kevin Conrad asks.
Constable Anne Rondeau is slightly flustered. No, such experts have not been engaged. An oceanographer? “There is this know-it-all ocean researcher who insists on adding his 10 cents worth without being asked. Other than that there’s nobody.” “What’s the name of this ocean researcher?” insists Conrad.
“David Hidden,” answers the charming young lady who is in her late 20s.
“Why didn’t anybody listen to him?”
“Well, even the top brass considered him a blow-hard who is only interested in publicly polishing his ego.”
“Is there any reason he should not be trusted or has he had any run-ins with law enforcement?”
“I want an appointment with this guy,” orders Conrad.
“No problem. We’ll issue a summons,” the policewoman agrees.
“Not a summons, an invitation.”
It seems that first of all Ottawa and Vancouver have to get used to each other. The Canadian capital of Ottawa is a long, long way from the Pacific coast of British Columbia – in people’s minds as well. Here they are used to solving their own problems. Interference and instructions are considered an imposition.
Three days after the meeting in the media room David Hidden takes a seat in the profiler’s office. He is a short chubby man between 65 and 70 years old with hardly a hair left on his pate and a mischievous grin.
“I thank you, professor that you could come at such short notice. An expert of your standing is surely busy with conferences and invitations from all over the world,” Conrad flatters. He is eager to put himself in the good graces of his visitor since he is not sure of the reason for his colleagues’ negative attitude towards him. “Needless to say we are going to cover your travel expenses.”
“Well, since my retirement there are fewer invitations,” the scientist answers modestly. “But there are advantages. I enjoy taking my boat out for a spin and to fish; the joys of an old man.”
“You couldn’t be that old,” Conrad interjects. “But fishing, is the operative word that brings us to the point. What do you think of these mysterious finds of feet? What is their source?”
“If I knew that you could close the case file and return to Ottawa. But seriously, that is the crucial question, though one that is not so easy to answer. The fact is that all the feet were stuck in jogging shoes. That is an important clue. Feet in leather shoes would have sunk. Running shoes, on the other hand, have air chambers in their soles so that the foot is cushioned during the jogging action. Therefore these sneakers swim and that can take its time. The cold salt water preserves the feet while they glide across the surface like buoys. They are also largely protected from carrion eating wildlife. This is really crazy. Such a shoe could have traveled thousands of miles and, as an example, could be from the Tsunami in the Indian Ocean Christmas 2004.”
“Excuse me, professor,” interrupts Conrad. “Why are these shoes landing here of all places and not all over Africa’s east, Australia’s north and America’s west coasts?”
“You are correct. I’ll get to that in a minute. First I wanted to explain to you that ocean currents could indeed transport these items around the globe. That is something I have studied all my life. I am the ocean current guru, if you will. And this is how that happened. In May 1990 the container ship “Hansa Carrier” was on its way from Korea to America when it was hit by a storm about 1,000 nautical miles south of Alaska. Of the containers 21 were swept overboard. Five of them were loaded with 80,000 Nike sneakers with identical serial numbers. My mother gave me the idea to follow the shoes. All I had to do was inform my colleagues. With help from the media a network of beachcombers was set up who soon began notifying me. With their help I was able to create a computer simulation, which illustrated exactly the direction of ocean currents. The first finds were reported along the northern coast of Washington State. A little later came the first discoveries on Vancouver Island, then Queen Charlotte Sound. This proves there is a strong south to north current along that coast. People established an exchange back then to match single finds, left or right, with the corresponding size shoe for the opposite foot so they could use them, you know? They were still in tiptop condition. Years later the Nikes showed up on the beaches of Hawaii, then the Philippines and Japan – proving a circular pattern. Then came rubber duckies, you know, those squeaky little yellow things. After those it was ice hockey gloves. My predictions became more and more precise. Those were exciting times. In the spring of 2000 I was able to solidify my theory with dolls heads which likewise were swept overboard on the way from Asia and first showed up in Oregon, Washington State and Canada. So you see, it is definitely possible that the feet in the jogging shoes could have come from victims of the Tsunami. “
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