ST. PETERSBURG — The leg was pale and bent at the knee. The limb washed ashore onto a small sliver of beach behind a waterfront neighborhood. It arrived sometime overnight and was discovered Tuesday morning by tourists.
But the most ominous detail was this: The leg was cleanly cut at the thigh and the foot.
"We don't know the cause and manner of death," said St. Petersburg police Maj. Mike Kovacsev, who commands the city's detectives. "But obviously someone went to great lengths to dismember this body."
The first issue in solving the mystery of the severed limb is identifying to whom it belongs, Kovacsev said.
Then police can start trying to answer these questions: How did the leg end up in the bay? Who did it? And where is the rest of the body?
"The most important thing is identifying the person," Kovacsev said. "You can't even surmise what happened to them until we identify the victim and look into their life."
The leg was found about 7:40 a.m. by a Canadian family who had rented the beachfront home at 6990 Fourth St. S for their vacation, police said. The last time the family was outside was about 6 p.m. Monday. They told police they didn't see anything suspicious.
The next morning, a family member went outside with a cup of coffee and spotted the leg. The home is next to the playground at the Bay Vista Recreation Center. There's also a popular fishing spot there.
St. Petersburg police said the leg belonged to a "heavyset" white person, and they believe it's a right limb. It was clean-shaven, suggesting it belonged to a woman. But the Medical Examiner's Office has not officially determined the gender of the victim.
The leg had no tattoos, no distinct marks or scars. There were no other signs of trauma, except for some mysterious marks around the upper thigh. It was dotted with seaweed and other debris when it was found. The condition of the limb suggested it had been in the water for one to two days.
Investigators will first check reports of missing persons, said police spokesman Mike Puetz. But based on what police know so far about the victim, no one matching that description has been reported missing in St. Petersburg.
So investigators are also looking at missing persons' cases in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties.
"Normally, we'll ask law enforcement agencies in the area if they have missing persons," Puetz said. "But it'll be more helpful when we get some kind of descriptor — like sex, approximate age, approximate height and weight, race, maybe some issues regarding cause of death — from the Medical Examiner's Office."
Investigators can also use DNA to try to identify the victim, but Puetz pointed out that will only work if that person's genetic profile is already in a law enforcement database.
Officers on land and water searched the city's shoreline Tuesday for more body parts and will keep searching in the coming days. Meanwhile, police are asking the public to contact them with any information that could help them identify the person whose leg washed ashore. There's no shortage of ways for a leg to be dumped into Tampa Bay, which is home to numerous marinas and boat slips, countless backyard docks and also commercial shipping lanes.
Police also said nothing links Tuesday's discovery to a female body found just 4 miles away floating in Lake Maggiore on Christmas Day.
The woman was identified as Stacia Kay Berman, 42, whose last known address was 424 Second St. N. She was seen floating in the water about 3:30 p.m., on the north side of the lake by the 2800 block of 13th Street S.
The body found Sunday afternoon was not missing limbs. The Medical Examiner's Office ruled her death a homicide Tuesday, saying she suffered blunt trauma to the upper body. Berman has a history of arrests going back 20 years, according to state records, that includes drug possession and prostitution.
Anyone who has any information about Berman's death is also asked to contact the St. Petersburg Police Department.
Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writers Kameel Stanley and Emily Nipps contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8472.