Foot found on Whidbey beach remains a mystery

COUPEVILLE — The foot remains anonymous.

A human right foot was found washed ashore on Whidbey Island on Aug. 27, 2010.

Detectives checked missing person cases and asked the public for tips.

There is no apparent link to any regional police investigations. DNA tests ruled out potential matches in known deaths.

The foot is being kept as evidence, said detective Ed Wallace with the Island County Sheriff’s Office.

His investigation is open, and the foot isn’t yet considered a “cold case.” Its genetic profile has been added to a national database.

“At this point, unfortunately, we’re just waiting for a match,” Wallace said.

Island County officials estimate that 25 human bodies or body parts have washed up on Whidbey and Camano island beaches over the past decade. That’s mostly because of local tidal patterns and the location of Whidbey at the northern entrance to Puget Sound.

Bodies almost always get identified, Wallace said. He estimates that about half of the partial remains are identified, usually through tattoos, dental records or finding a DNA match. Many of those identifications require help from victims’ families.

With the foot case, there’s just not enough information, Wallace said. It’s not clear how the person died, or how the foot showed up where it did.

It was found by a beachcomber near Greenbank, on the east side of the island, facing Saratoga Passage.

The foot is small, and likely belonged to a woman or a child. Investigators believe the foot was in the water less than two months before it washed ashore. There was no shoe. The foot didn’t match any known suicides off Deception Pass Bridge.

There were no obvious signs of trauma that would explain why the foot wasn’t attached. Decomposing bodies left in water commonly lose hands and feet.

Investigators can sometimes estimate the general path remains may have traveled, but they need to know with some precision when and where they went into the water or washed ashore, Wallace said. Without those details, it’s difficult.

“It’s tied to date and time, the tides and patterns,” Wallace said.

In recent years, numerous feet have washed up near Vancouver, B.C., making global headlines. There’s no way to tell if this foot is related, Wallace said.

“We’ve got nothing that directly points to those cases, but we also have nothing that directly excludes it either,” he said.

The foot was found long before the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

The foot’s genetic profile was extracted by the team of scientists at the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. They have the equipment, staff and resources for genetics work that may be too complicated or cumbersome for other public agencies.

The center sees an average of 40 cases of unidentified human remains a month from around the country, said Dixie Peters, technical leader in missing person cases. They see up to 950 cases of unidentified remains a year.

Those numbers don’t include family members who submit samples of their own DNA for the national database, Peters said. They do that in hopes their genetic profile will trigger a partial match in case a missing loved one is entered into the system sometime and somewhere.

If someone in your family has gone missing, and you are interested in providing a DNA sample for the national database, police say to contact whatever agency took the original report. Federal and state laws may affect when a genetic sample may be collected.

The best matching samples come from the parents or children of the missing person, but other close relatives sometimes can help, Peters said.

“Without them coming forward, a lot of these cases are going to go unsolved,” she said.

Anyone with information about the foot found near Greenbank in August 2010 is encouraged to call Island County sheriff’s detectives at 360-678-4422.

With new DNA samples added to the database all the time, there is always the hope of solving unidentified remains cases, Wallace said.

“We don’t file them and forgot them,” he said.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com

If you find remains

If you come across what appear to be human remains, you should call police immediately, detectives say. The exact location of the remains can be crucial to an investigation, but if the remains are in a tideline, it may be best to move them a short distance so they aren’t washed away. Do not take them home or tamper with them.

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