Sunday, July 18, 2010

Solving a Cold Case

Recently airing on one of those “Strange, But True” genera TV shows was the curious case of beachcombers along the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Vancouver BC encountering individual sneakers having washed up on the shore containing apparently severed human feet. Actually, several of these had been discovered which sparked a very creepy mystery and ensuing investigation. You can read a newspaper story here published in the “Vancouver Sun”.

Speculation quickly arose that some crazed murderer was severing his victim’s feet and throwing them into Strait. Or perhaps a boat had sunk and sharks had eaten the poor victims, all except their feet.

The mystery, as it turned out, proved to be the result of a normal function of human decay called “Disarticulation” – the separation of bones at the joints as a result of normal decomposition. Tracking the location of the washed-up feet and comparing the prevailing currents in the strait, it was determined the victims were most likely suicides who had jumped off a bridge spanning the river which opened into the strait. As their bodies sank then decomposed the foot would disarticulate from the leg as the connective tissue holding the bones together dissolved. The buoyant sneaker would then float to the surface where the prevailing current would deposit the sneaker, foot still inside, on to the shore. Mystery solved.

However the following case of disarticulation had a quite different origin - the true story as was told to me first-hand by my brother-in-law:

George worked for the Oregon Fish and Wildlife service at the Trask River fish hatchery in Tillamook country. The hatchery consisted of several large concrete pools which were stocked with salmon fry, hand fed until they were fingerlings sufficiently robust to be released into the river to make their way to the ocean.

Large quantities of fish food obtained in 50 pound bags are required to feed the thousands of hungry mouths. To keep the food from going bad (it stinks pretty badly even when frozen), the bags of feed are stored in a room size walk-in freezer. This freezer often ends up becoming the repository of all kinds of things requiring cold storage.

On this particular hot day, George decided to have the crew go through the neglected freezer room to clean out much of the frozen junk that had accumulated over the years. There were bags and boxes, cans and barrels; all manner of frozen junk. The guys were all pulling out and peering into containers when suddenly one of the crew screamed “OH MY GOD…” tossing the bag in his hands away and onto the floor.

The men gathered around then George picked the paper bag from the floor – peering inside he could see it contained a frozen HUMAN HAND severed at the wrist.

After some discussion, they decided to contact the State Police. At first no one could come up with an explanation for the rather unsettling discovery. But eventually someone at the local District Attorney’s office solved the mystery: The local Coroner had removed the hand from the body of a murder victim several years previously, pending trial of the perpetrator, so the family could proceed with the funeral and burying of their loved one. The hand had been retained in the event that the victim’s identity might had required verification during the trial.

However the trial had been concluded long since and the severed hand stored in the fish hatchery freezer had long been forgotten.

Besides this had been a common practice for the State Game Wardens who often stored illegally hunted game in the freezer as evidence in game poaching trials. Being located on State property, the hatchery freezer was a perfect cold storage evidence locker.

For about a week at the hatchery there was a lot of joking; “Can I give you a hand with that?” or “Hey lets give George a big hand.” One thing the guys at the hatchery could claim, however, was that they had genuinely solved a “Cold Case”.


TechnoBabe said...

Okay, now I know I have to get to that pedicure. Just in case. You know, like mom always advised to wear clean underwear in case of an accident, now we need to make sure our feet are looking good too. Sheesh.

The Mother said...

"After some discussion, they decided to contact the State Police"???

You need to have a CHAT about calling the police when you find a severed hand???

For the Record (me pathologist and all) it is NOT common practice for MEs or even untrained coroners to store body parts in food-related frigs. Both the Health dept and the defense attorneys would have conniption fits.

Robert the Skeptic said...

TechnoBabe Yes the next time you go shopping for shoes you might ask the sales person if those particular styles are "floaters" or "sinkers".

Dr. Mom I should have said "after a brief discussion" - they weren't sure at first if it was some kind of joke.

I've actually seen the locker. The freezer's primarily use is to store stacked bags of frozen FISH FOOD as well as the occasional elk, deer or salmon carcass picked up by the game cops. No human food is stored there. (Well, the salmon usually ended up on someone's plate)

I don't know if Tillamook county Coroner's "cold storage" facility was inadequate or why they otherwise decided to store the hand at the hatchery. But it being government property likely was part of the decision.

By the way, I was anticipating that YOU in particular would get a big "kick" out of this story. :)

KleinsteMotte said...

Are you planning a new career? This type of writing sends too many chills up my spine. But I do admire those who can hack it.It's an interesting podt.

Gorilla Bananas said...

I never knew coroners had the right to remove people's hands and store them in other people's fridges. They are tyrants drunk with power.

Robert the Skeptic said...

KleinsteMotte You mean, as a mystery writer? Nahhh. Though I do like scientific mysteries and I have more of such waiting in the wings.

Bananas Well Coroner's have the right to pretty much carve up a body in whatever manner necessary to obtain evidence. I think in this case this was before DNA samples were routinely kept as evidence as is the case today.

But you gotta hand it to them, it was a rather handy way to deal with the problem. (sorry, couldn't resist)

secret agent woman said...

I read a gruesome but fascinating account of the science behind re-constructing aircraft disasters. They mention collecting up body parts, including feet still in their shoes. Still, I always think about the poor surviving family members who are left with those horrifying images.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent I have read similar aviation forensic information as well; things like clothing torn from the bodies indicating the fuselage integrity failed at high altitude rather than contact with terrain.

I think about the people who have do that kind of work, how difficult it must be to remain dispassionate and objective. Were one to allow even a tad of humanity to seep in, the job would be nearly impossible, for me, at least. I believe they try to obtain the relevant facts and yet go to great ends to try to spare the family members with those horrifying details as you suggest.

Penny said...

Incredibly interesting. I hope I never see one of those shoes and contents, but good to know that there's an explanation for this and the relatives may have closure.

Marylinn Kelly said...

More such mysteries waiting in the wings? Yes, please. A fine tale, all the better for the first-person information. And quite well told.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Penny That would be a creepy thing to find on the beach... or in a brown paper bag. I believe body parts should remain firmly attached to their owners.

Marylinn Skepticism is all about uncovering mysteries, though I operate fairly consistently in the realm of non-fiction. Glad you enjoyed that one, though.

Orhan Kahn said...

Never heard of disarticulation before. Very interesting, indeed.

Entre Nous said...

I love it. Reminds me of the old days at the PD when we had no official evidence freezer.

If it was too busy to leave the radios and one had to rely on another to retrive one's lunch from the freezer, and interesting conversation would ensue.

"Which container is it?"

"The one between the rape kit and the severed finger, or it may be near the bag of brokenm tooth pieces..."

Never bothered us (Call me anything but don't call me late for lunch) but it seemed to affect new clerical employees adversely...

Robert the Skeptic said...

Entre Nous I guess it could be a form of "gallows humor" or perhaps the banality of the workplace. But hey, it's a cold spot to store your lunch, so why not?!