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Cold case mystery: A mutilated bear, in a freezer, floating in the bay

An illustration shows a bear lying inside a freezer floating on a turbulent bay.
A bear was found locked in a freezer floating in San Francisco Bay. | Source: AI illustration by Clark Miller for The Standard

It’s the coldest of cold cases: Two years after a mutilated bear carcass turned up locked inside a freezer that was floating in San Francisco Bay, investigators are still scratching their heads as to how it got there. 

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife said the San Francisco Police Department’s Marine Unit requested its assistance on April 24, 2022, after police located a freezer with a dead, “partially frozen” bear inside.

“Approximately half the bear was in the freezer,” said James Ober, a lieutenant with the wildlife department overseeing San Francisco County. "I know the head was there and the upper half was there," Ober said.

Ober did not have information about where the rest of the bear's carcass was.

Police confirmed that the Marine Unit responded around 1 p.m. regarding the removal of a hazardous item in the water. Officers found a chest-style freezer and removed it from the bay, at which point they found an “animal body part” inside.

Choppy waters before a pier with a person; a bridge faintly looms in the misty background.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife said the San Francisco Police Department’s Marine Unit requested its assistance in 2022 after police discovered a bear carcass locked inside a freezer floating in San Francisco Bay. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

Police found no indication of a crime and determined that no further investigation was needed.

Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Patrick Foy, however, said that there is still an open poaching case into the bear’s death, but it has stalled because the warden’s inspection found no cause of death and the department has yet to receive any tips.

Foy also said that examining the freezer for fingerprints wouldn’t have been possible, as the water has washed it clean.

William O’Brien, the game warden who inspected the bear carcass, was contacted for comment but did not respond by publication time.

Foy said the animal in question was a “badly decomposed” black bear.

“It was out there for who knows how long,” he said.

A bear walks near a creek.
An American black bear walks along Behm Canal in southeast Alaska. Black bears are the only species of bear in California. | Source: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Black bears—whose coats come in several colors—are the only species of bear in California and are often spotted around the Bay Area. They’re often poached for their claws, paws and gallbladders, which, when dried and crushed into powder, are used in traditional Chinese medicine, Foy said. Bear bile has been shown to treat liver disease, but it is also marketed without proof as a cure for cancer, as well as remedies for colds and hangovers.

Bears can be hunted legally, but only with a permit. Hunters must kill bears during the hunting season, which runs from October to December. Once a bear has been killed, the hunter must put ID tags on the bear and notify the state wildlife department.

In other words, regardless of whether a crime was committed in the hunting of the bear stuffed into the freezer, giving a bear you killed a subzero sailor’s burial is definitely not legal.

Other strange things have been found near San Francisco’s port. In 2013, a Banksy painting stolen from Pier 43½ went missing for almost a decade and was part of a bizarre 2021 auction, which was eventually shut down before the painting was recovered by San Francisco police. A trove of works by an artist who died in a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Paris over 80 years ago also mysteriously showed up at Crane Cove Park in May 2022.

Garrett Leahy can be reached at