Investigators ask public to fund DNA testing on foot found near Port Angeles

Law enforcement officials in Clallam County are asking the public to donate to cover the cost of DNA testing on a foot found inside a sneaker that washed up near the mouth of the Elwha River outside Port Angeles in 2021.

In December 2021, a person called the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office after they discovered a woman’s size 8 New Balance sneaker containing human remains washed ashore, according to a Facebook post from the office. Due to the limited remains, investigators were unable to determine details about the person’s physical attributes.

The case eventually went cold as investigators had few leads to pursue, according to the post.

The sheriff’s office usually relies on Washington State Patrol and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System for forensic analysis, said detective Sgt. Brian Knutson. However, the unique nature of the evidence meant the remains did not meet the criteria for testing through either agency.

The sheriff’s office tried to partner with a lab that tests unidentified human remains at the University of North Texas, but the lab halted testing on out-of-state evidence in 2022, Knutson said.

In 2022, the sheriff’s office partnered with Othram, a private forensic lab, to determine if DNA testing could establish the person’s identity or that of a close relative. Last week, the sheriff’s office asked people to donate to pay for test.

On Wednesday, about $1,100 of its $7,500 goal had been raised.

Since 2007, nearly two dozen human feet in sneakers have washed up along the coasts of the Salish Sea in the U.S. and Canada. In some cases, the feet have been matched to missing persons.

If a body sinks and decomposes underwater, scavengers begin feasting — often picking at the soft ligaments and connective tissues of human ankles first, causing the feet to become separated, according to National Geographic.

Changes in sneaker design since 2007 have made shoes more buoyant, as manufacturers began using lighter foam for soles. Because the Salish Sea’s prevailing winds are westerly, objects are usually brought to shore rather than pushed out to sea, according to National Geographic.

Kristen Mittelman, chief development officer for Othram, said the advanced DNA testing required in a case like that of the recently found foot is new technology, and funding is limited — often causing law enforcement agencies to crowdfund or seek donations from philanthropists.

Othram is waiting on funding to run DNA sequencing on the foot found near Port Angeles, Mittelman said.

Knutson said the sheriff’s office still doesn’t have answers about how the person might have died, and is focused on getting an identification first.

Another sneaker with human remains was found along the shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca about 30 miles west of Port Angeles in 2008.

Anyone with information that could aid in this investigation is asked to contact the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office by calling the tip line at 360-417-2540 and referencing agency case 2021-00023819.

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