The canoe paddle hit with a silent thud. It was an unmistakable feeling of something heavy and stiff. The pale and bloated blob could have been anything, but as it came closer to the surface of the water, the hair became visible.
It was a man. He was dead.
My friend found the body 17 years ago on the Saco River in Maine. It was a midsummer Sunday morning, and he, a friend, his older sister and a friend of hers were near the end of a 14-mile float. In that section of the Saco, the water is shallow, cool and slow. It's so clean that the sandy bottom feels like it's inches away. There are beaches and pull-offs for camping littered along the way and plenty of rope swings. People bring barges of beer and drugs, and parties rage up and down its banks. In that way, it resembles the first weekend back at college after a long summer break — raucous, rambunctious and hopeful. More importantly, it's also nearly police-free.
The night before my friend found the body, speed boats and hovercrafts raced up and down the river. It wasn't normal. At one point, one of the boats came up to my friend, who was about to be a freshman in high school, and asked him and his crew if they'd seen anything suspicious. "No," they said. They were tucked into camp, hunkered around the fire and in their tents, too young for any of the river's debauchery.
It turned out, though, that the body was only about 100 yards from their campsite.
"I was thinking, This can't be a human body; this must be a mannequin. Earlier in the weekend, I saw a party barge of tied-up canoes with an inflatable sex doll mounted on a paddle. And the body was bloated, as if inflated. He was about three feet down in crystal clear water, stuck on a branch in an otherwise sandy-bottom river. I thought, Please let it be a sex doll. Don't be person."
As they moved the man to the surface with their paddles, a couple of kayakers came by and helped. They brought the body closer to shore and sent off my friend and his canoemates, telling them that they'd handle everything with the authorities. "We didn't talk much about it on the long trip back home to Massachusetts," my friend says.
When my friend did get home, he searched the internet to find out what had happened. Edward Landry, 35 and also from Massachusetts, had left his party of about 14, all of whom were camped near the Saco, to go swimming the previous evening. Unfortunately, he'd been drinking heavily beforehand. Somewhere along the line, he became lost to the river.
Water gives us life, but it also happens to be among the best places to ditch a body. Scientists know less about the bottom of the ocean than they do about the moon. Meanwhile, deep lakes are murky and hard to explore. Not to mention, once a body is in water, it begins to bloat, dissolve and serve as sustenance for aquatic life. So while salt water can preserve a dead body, hungry predators and microorganisms will quickly render that fact useless.
Gangsters, in particular, have found water to be a convenient burial ground, pioneering the whole cement-boots trope. Again, in my neck of the woods of New England, in 1981, Boston crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger allegedly murdered the girlfriend of his hitman, Stephen "The Rifleman," and buried her on the banks of the Neponset River. (In general, when Bulger's "Winter Hill Gang" wasn't burying people in pavement, they were leaving their bodies on the beaches in and around Boston.) Similarly, Lake Tahoe reportedly has bodies buried at its bottom from a bygone era of mob violence. "Some fishermen even call the spot The Grave," a 2004 San Francisco Chronicle article reported. "Many locals talk as if everybody knows about this, that there are lots of gangsters down there, wearing pin-striped suits, with sneers on their faces and bullet holes in their foreheads."
The tradition continues today — and not just in Tahoe. In November, identical twins Louie and Vincent Iacono, 36, were arrested for killing their 35-year-old housemate, Carmine Carini Jr. Carini's father, also named Carmine, was a member of the infamous Gambino crime family. Carini had been hit in the head with a hammer by the twins, who then allegedly dumped his body into Jamaica Bay with a cinder block and a bucket of construction materials attached to his feet. It didn't work out like in the movies, though. Carini's body washed ashore in Brooklyn. Same for the corpse of 28-year-old gang member Peter Martinez, which showed up on Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay in 2016 with its feet encased in cement. Martinez, believed to be a member of the Crips, was found by college students. Tape covered his mouth and nostrils; his arms were tied behind his back; and a black plastic encased all of him.
Which brings us to the topic at hand — a very different kind of beach body. Because while a body of water might be the perfect place to dispose of a human (for all the reasons listed above), there's the matter of the perfect mix of currents and wind and buoyancy that can drag it to shore (or at least parts of it). These stories, of course, are the exception. But that only adds to their legend and mystery.
The beaches of the Salish Sea, which sits between Seattle and Vancouver, have long been haunted by the arrival of severed feet, almost always clad in shoes as footwear prevents fish from devouring them. In fact, over the past decade, 14 feet have been found on various beaches along the sea, likely due to the occurrence of extra high tides and strong currents in the region. Twelve of those 14 cases:
- There was the foot in a black athletic shoe with velcro and a tibia and fiber still attached that washed ashore in December. It was discovered in a bed of seaweed and kelp by a rottweiler and his owner. It belonged to 79-year-old Stanley K. Okumoto, who walked with a cane and had a history of strokes. According to news reports, "Okumoto was last seen at about 11 a.m. Sept. 18 after driving from his residence in the Central Kitsap-Silverdale area [in Washington] and heading toward the Central Valley Road area." His 2002 Ford Escort was found the day after he went missing. Eventually, his body sans leg was found — one-and-a-half miles from where his car was parked.
- The first foot was found by a young girl in August 2007 on Jedediah Island, which is north of Vancouver. She found a size-12 shoe with a sock in it. When she looked inside, there was also a right foot. It belonged to a 21-year-old man who went missing in 2004.
- The second foot was found shortly thereafter in a white Reebok on Gabriola Island and matched the DNA of a man who went missing in 2006.
- A man's right foot was found on Valdes Island in February 2008. His left foot was found on Westham Island four months later. Both were in blue-and-white, size-11 Nikes.
- On May 28, 2008, a woman's size-seven New Balance was found on Kirkland Island. Her left foot was found in November. She jumped from the Pattullo Bridge in New Westminster, British Columbia, in 2004.
- On December 5, 2010, a man walking along the shores of a beach in Tacoma, Washington, found a foot floating in the water. The shoe was a size-six Ozark Trail hiking boot and probably belonged to a juvenile.
- On November 4, 2011, a child found a foot in a sock and boot on the shore of Sasamat Lake in Port Moody, British Columbia. It belonged to a boater who had been missing for 25 years. Back on January 5, 1985, 65-year-old Stefan Zahorujko had disappeared while fishing on the lake. His boat with his personal belongings were discovered overturned and drifting in the lake. "An autopsy indicated the foot had not been mechanically removed, but rather separated through the natural processes that occur in water," the coroner's office said in a statement.
- The right foot of a 25-year-old man who had been missing for a year was discovered by two men walking on a Richmond, Washington, beach.
- The remains of a foot that belonged to a woman or child was found on a beach on Whidbey Island in August 2010. No DNA match has been made, but police believed the foot, which was mostly tendon and muscle, had been in the water for less than two months.
- In December 2011, volunteers for Heroes for the Homeless found a black plastic bag with a foot and leg inside in a wooded area near the Ship Canal Bridge in Seattle. "I guess it was from the knee down, and it was pretty decomposed," said Tricia Lapitan, the organization's founder.
- On February 7, 2016, a hiker found a right foot in a New Balance running shoe on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The second shoe in the pair was found five days later with another foot inside.
- And just a few weeks ago, a right foot in a hiking boot was discovered in a logjam by a man walking on the beach on Gabriola Island. Its owner is still unknown.
Also not long ago, a bag filled with 27 pairs of hands was found on an icy island in the Amur River, the 10th longest river in the world. The wrinkled and pale hands were found near the city of Khabarovsk, along the Russia-China border, at a popular fishing area. Next to the hands were bandages and plastic shoe covers often used in hospitals. All of it — the bandages, shoe covers and hands — came from a forensic laboratory in Khabarovsk. According to The Siberian Times, "The Investigative Committee, which probes serious crimes in Russia, suggests there was nothing abnormal in storing severed hands — only in the way they were disposed of. It says that 'these biological items (human hands) do not have a criminal background' — yet it gave little extra detail. The [Investigative Committee] appears to [be alluding] to a little-known procedure in Russia to cut the hands off unknown corpses as a means of retaining fingerprints if needed after burial."
A foot and unnamed body part were found on Copacabana Beach 36 days before the start of the 2016 Summer Olympics. The volleyball stadium was only a few hundred yards away. Police believed they belonged to a woman or a young adult. The case disappeared in the media because Brazil had so many problems heading into the Olympics that it was hard to keep track of all of them. Or as CNN put it, "It's another embarrassing blow to the host country — already reeling from financial problems, a mishap-prone Olympic torch and an outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus."
A dream vacation to Fiji turned into a nightmare in August 2016 for a Kiwi couple when they uncovered a head wrapped in green cloth and tied down with rocks, which were supposed to keep it submerged in the shallow water near Natadola Beach. The head belonged to Yuri Shipulin, a Russian expat who moved to the island in 2011 with his wife, Nataliya Gerasimova. The couple had gone missing in mid-June — Shipulin was believed to have owed more than $200,000 to former business associates after multiple failed attempts at starting a business. Their feet had washed ashore first, then Shipulin's head, and finally in September, the rest of Gerasimova's body. It had been cut below the navel and above the knees.
"We have asked the police a number of times why the beach remains open," Repeka Nasiko, a reporter for the Fijian Times, told The Guardian last year. "Because body parts keep turning up, and always on the beach. It's a shocking killing, we are not used to something like this here. It is so public and a very popular picnic spot. People are scared that whoever did this is still on the loose."
That continues to be true today as their killers have yet to be apprehended.
The head of six-year-old Adam Walsh was found in a drainage ditch near Vero Beach, Florida, on August 10, 1981. He'd disappeared from the toy department of a Sears at a nearby mall two weeks earlier. His mother, Revé Walsh, was looking at lamps in another part of the store while Adam played Atari. His dad, John, was at work at the time. Leads about who abducted and killed Walsh were few and far between. And the Walsh family believed that the Miami-Dade Police Department botched the investigation by misplacing evidence.
A couple of years later, a made-for-TV movie called Adam debuted on NBC. Pictures and details of missing children were aired after the movie. Subsequently, John and Revé started the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center, which later merged with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. All the while, FOX asked Walsh if he wanted to start his own show about wanted criminals. "[FOX] approached me in 1987 and asked [would] you [like] to host the first reality show. It's modeled after a show in England called Crimewatch U.K. done by the BBC, recreations, very successful," Walsh told Larry King in 2006. "I asked them two questions: 'Number one, what's reality television? And number two, 'What's FOX?' And I said, 'I'm not interested. I'm trying to change laws for children. I don't know anything about TV.' [But] they persisted and told me the first guy they wanted to profile was an FBI Top 10 child killer and that they would put a hotline together that cops didn't answer, [just] hotline operators."
Walsh ultimately took the job, and America's Most Wanted ran from 1988 until 2011, making it the network's second longest-running show after The Simpsons. More importantly, in 2008, police closed the investigation into Adam's murder. They claimed it was committed by Ottis Toole, an arsonist and serial killer who died in prison in 1996. Toole had first confessed to the crime in October 1983, the day after Adam aired. But he later recanted his confession, and a pattern would emerge where he would confess and recant a few more times. And while he was always a prime suspect — his car was seen at the mall the day of Adam's disappearance and had blood stains in the backseat — he never went to trial.
Further, rumors surfaced that Toole had been fed information about the case by a detective trying get a book deal. Toole also sent a letter to America's Most Wanted telling Walsh he would divulge where the rest of Adam's remains were for fee. He sent similar letters to popular news organizations saying he could give them details about the murder, too, if they paid him for the interview. Walsh, however, always believed Toole was guilty of his son's murder. "We have believed for years that Ottis Toole killed Adam," Walsh told the Miami Herald in 2016. "I never had any doubt."
North Carolina experienced a string of strange, grisly murders in the early 1990s. It started on November 1,1992, when a woman's body was found stuffed in a trash bag near Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which is situated on an island between the Outer Banks and the state's mainland. The woman turned out to be 59-year-old Anna Schaftner Lundin, who had been missing since April 1991.
Her 21-year-old son Kenneth Lundin had strangled her, wrapped her body in a blanket and put it in a trash bag that was duct-taped shut and tied with a yellow rope. He dumped it in the shallow waters off a beach on Cape Hatteras near a dune on the north side of the lighthouse.
Lundin and his 57-year-old father Ole fled to Canada after being questioned by police and had to be extradited to face trial. Kenneth pled guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Per court documents, Kenneth claimed his mother's alcoholism caused him to kill her:
"The victim had a drinking problem and, according to defendant, had been drinking on the day he killed her. The victim allegedly approached defendant with a pair of scissors and said she was going to cut his hair. Defendant said he did not want his hair cut, but the victim insisted, grabbed him by the hair, and would not let go. Defendant then grabbed the victim by her shirt collar and pulled until he felt her go limp. He laid her on the floor and saw her open her eyes. Defendant left the home for a while and when he returned, he discovered she was dead."
But according to a July 1993 article in The Virginian-Pilot, "Prosecutors said neighbors reported that Ole and Peter Lundin wanted Anna Lundin dead and had talked about killing her more than once. The woman had told friends that her husband abused her and once tied her to a chair so tightly that the rope burns showed on her throat, prosecution witnesses testified."
Ole was sentenced to two years in prison as an accomplice to murder. Kenneth was released from prison in 1999 and deported to Denmark — his family migrated to the U.S. when he was seven. A year later he committed murder again when he dismembered a woman he was living with and her two sons with an axe and angle grinder, leaving a disturbing scene of blood and gore in their basement and garage. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2011.
A fisherman found the remains of 27-year-old Katerina Laktionova in a small black suitcase on the coast of Rimini, an Italian city on the Adriatic Sea. She died of starvation due to an eating disorder. Her grieving mother stuffed her in the suitcase and threw it into the sea before flying back to Russia. It's believed she'd been dead for at least a week beforehand.
On November 17, 2017 and November 27, 2017, two separate small, rickety, wooden ships ground ashore on the west coast of Japan, which is across the Korean Strait from North Korea. One carried eight skeletal remains; the other had four dead bodies. Five years earlier, a dozen more ships with dead bodies had landed in the same area. They're believed to be North Korean fisherman who died on the job. Because North Korea has sold its coastal fishing waters to China, the country's fishermen are forced to sail smaller, wooden boats illegally into rough Japanese waters in order to catch the quota of fish imposed by the regime. Even if their rickety vessels survive the trip, they still might not make it home on account of the fact that they often run out of fuel since sanctions have left North Korea bereft of gas.
None of this, though, has eroded the fishermen's loyalty. Some of the bodies have been found wearing pins with Kim Il-sung on them.
Last September, Julie Edwards and her basset hound Molly thought they'd found a penis and testicles on a beach in Somerset, England. After a police investigation, however, it was determined to be a sea squirt. "They normally live attached to the sand or rocks below the waves and live by filtering water through their bodies," Joshua Davison, a marine biologist, told The Mirror. "Out of all the invertebrates (e.g. clams, crabs, anemones) these are among the closest relatives to people that don't have backbones that you can find in the shallow water around the U.K."
"Hilariously, this species is called Phallusia mammillata," he continued. "Where Phallusia is likely from the Greek Phallos, meaning penis."
Growing up, my mother used to tell me stories about Bulger's gang burying their victims near my home in Milford, Massachusetts. She most frequently regaled me with such tales as we drove down the dirt road at the end of my street that took us into Hopkinton and later turned into the street where some of Bulger's victims were supposedly buried at a sports club. Numerous granite quarries are hidden in the woods there, too. They would've been the perfect place for Bulger to dump a body. No currents. No wind patterns. No beaches to wash up on.
Still, as a kid, I rode my bike to the quarries and jumped from the cliffs into the dark, murky water. It wasn't something I enjoyed as much as participated in because everyone else was doing it. The water was always too warm, stagnate and deep for me. It felt like what I imagined swamp water felt like. Nor could I ever see the bottom. To top it off, I always feared I'd bump into one of Bulger's bodies. I never found one, thankfully. I don't know what I would've done if I had. And I don't know what it would've done to me.
To that end, I asked my friend recently about what finding Edward Landry had done to him. The answer surprised me. He told me he didn't think much about Landry. And that while he was sad about what happened, it didn't traumatize him. He did say, though, it gives him pause every time he thinks about nightswimming while drunk.
That lesson was clear-cut: He didn't want to become lost to the river, too.
Kevin Koczwara has written for Rolling Stone, Deadspin and VICE. He last wrote about the man who buries everyone—including the Boston Marathon bomber.