Severed finger in potting soil a mystery

Officials try to trace digit N.J. woman found in bag packaged in Md.

June 05, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

Authorities across the mid-Atlantic region have a digital mystery on their hands: the source of a severed finger that turned up in a bag of potting soil packaged in Maryland.

The finger startled a New Jersey gardener on Memorial Day, prompting a call to her local police and detective work tracing the bag to its Delaware supplier and the company's packaging plant in Wicomico County.

"We've been in business for 14 years, and this is the first time we've ever gotten any notoriety," said Steve Liffers, vice president of sales and marketing for Coastal Supply Co., a garden products business in Dagsboro, Del.

Liffers, at the request of police in Hopewell Township, N.J., searched three years of medical records at Coastal Supply and was sure the finger did not belong to any current or former employee.

The soil was packaged in Pittsville, a small town halfway between Salisbury and Ocean City, Liffers said, but the finger could have come from any of a dozen suppliers in Maryland, Virginia or Delaware -- including sawmills.

"We buy topsoil from contractors who build on farmland; we buy pine bark from sawmills," Liffers said.

"It sounds sick, but you find a lot of people working in sawmills who have lost fingers; that's just a fact," Liffers said. "Obviously, one of our raw material suppliers had an accident. It's gross, but it's not an uncommon occurrence."

Liffers said the material from Delmarva peninsula sources is processed and packaged in three plants near the Delaware town, then shipped to garden supply shops from North Carolina to Maine and as far west as Ohio.

He speculated that if a worker lost a finger, it could quickly have been lost in the hundreds of cubic yards of material whirling through a plant's conveyor system. At the Pittsville plant, the digit must have slipped through the five-eighths-inch screen where topsoil and finely mulched bark are mixed before packaging.

Police in Hopewell Township, a small town near Princeton, said they are waiting for word from the county medical examiner's office, which has asked for help from a forensic anthropologist.

No one knows whether it came from a right or left hand or how long it might have been detached before the discovery.

"We got a call from a lady who bought two 20-pound bags of potting soil from a local nursery. She poured out potting soil and a finger fell from one bag," said township police Lt. George Meyer. "That's literally all we know."

Pub Date: 6/05/99

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