Another severed human foot has been found washed ashore in British Columbia – the fifth in recent months.
In the latest grisly twist to a saga that has spawned dozens of conspiracy theories, two dog-walkers spotted the left foot, inside a shoe, floating in water off Westham island, near the mouth of the Fraser river, on Monday morning.
It was detached near the ankle, and had apparently been in the water for some time. Police are trying to determine whether it is linked to some near-identical discoveries which began when a size 12 right foot came ashore last August.
All five of the feet, still in trainers, were found within 60 miles of each other along the shores of the Strait of Georgia, a long gulf located between the mainland and the eastern side of Vancouver island. The first four were right feet – three apparently male, one female – and none appear to have been forcibly removed from the rest of their bodies.
Potential explanations have proliferated, with suggestions including Mafia killings, a people-smuggling attempt gone wrong, or a boating accident. Police say they are treating the latest find as a criminal inquiry.
"We are certainly not discounting the possibility that this may be linked to the other recovered feet," the local police chief, Sharlene Brooks, said. "This might take a long time. It is going to be pretty difficult."
The five feet are at the Centre for Forensic Research at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Local reports say that a forensic anthropologist at SFU, Mark Skinner, is boiling the flesh off them in an effort to extract DNA samples and study the bones to identify characteristics that could suggest the cause of death.
Although human remains frequently appear on the rocky coastline of the Gulf islands, the similarities between the cases is attracting prurient media interest. The first two feet, found within a week on Jedediah and Gabriola islands, were size 12. The third, on Valdez island, was size 10. A fourth, washed ashore on Kirkland island last month, was a woman's, size 7.
"This is the first incident in recent memory where we've had such similar sets of remains," said a coroner, Jeff Dolan, whose office is keen to play down suggestions of foul play. "Based on what we know, this is probably a weird coincidence."
Others are not so sure. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a Seattle-based oceanographer who specialises in what floats on currents, says: "We are dealing with something involving human intervention." He said: "An accident is probably on the remote side. This suggests foul play."
Mr Ebbesmeyer concedes it is not unusual to find hands, feet or heads on a beach, since currents tend to break human bodies into roughly 10 parts over time. A foot in a training shoe is also fairly common, since the shoes help them float.
But the similarities point to more than coincidence, he says. All being feet and so of similar shape, they are likely to have remained fairly close to one another. And all were found around the mouth of the Fraser river which flows into the Strait from high in the Rockies. Any large-scale accident or killing probably occurred upstream on the Fraser.
As to how the feet's owners met their deaths, Vancouver is buzzing with explanations. The most outlandish have involved a murderous foot fetishist and a local Mafia don who – in a break from convention – tipped victims overboard in a single concrete boot.