Saturday, April 18, 2009

April 15, 2009

Questions, suspicion as search for Tori reveals dark side of small town

WOODSTOCK, ONT. -- It is one of those places where it seems no one could hide, where folks notice the unfamiliar car and the stranger in it and the streets are sufficiently untravelled that rush hour is a lineup of a dozen cars at the light on Wilson Street narrowed to one lane by some construction.

As Constable Laurie-Anne Maitland, who in the past week has become nationally known as the spokeswoman for the Oxford Community Police Service, said yesterday with a rueful grin, "You can't be anonymous in a small community, in Woodstock. The person you cut off at the light will be your kid's fourth-grade teacher next year."

Yet by day's end yesterday, the sixth since Victoria (Tori) Stafford vanished into or out of this town of about 35,000 about 125 kilometres southwest of Toronto, the woman at the centre of the little girl's disappearance has yet to be found.

The woman was caught on grainy surveillance videotape, taken from a distance, walking with the eight-year-old girl shortly after her class was dismissed at 3:40 p.m. on April 8.

Tori herself was positively identified the next day by more than one witness, Constable Maitland said, within about two hours of the tape being released to the media and the public about 5 p.m.

But the woman - described as white, between 19 and 25, with long straight black hair, wearing a white puffy jacket and black jeans - remains unrecognized.

So on the alert are the media and townspeople looking for the mystery woman that when the lady who lives right next door to Tori's house on Frances Street popped in for a visit the other day, she forgot she was wearing a white spring coat and found herself swarmed by reporters camped in the backyard.

She is a middle-aged woman with pretty grey hair, and as she said yesterday, "Who doesn't have a white jacket?"

She walked straight past the reporters - "I'm not a rude person," she said, "but they make you rude" - and into the house where Tori lives with her mom, Tara McDonald, and Tori's big brother Daryn, who is 10.

The family moved to the house only two weeks ago. The woman promptly offered Ms. McDonald her vacuum cleaner and some cleaning supplies, and the two have chatted a bit since. She was retrieving the vacuum cleaner when she was mobbed by the media.

The night before Tori disappeared, she and Daryn came over to play with the woman's little Chihuahua puppy, Conway (named for the country singer Conway Twitty, she said, "small but with an attitude.") The little girl, she said, searching for the right words, struck her as unusually "well adjusted and mature."

The picture of Tori with the mystery woman was retrieved from footage taken by a camera at College Avenue Secondary School, which shares a huge green space with Oliver Stephens Public School where Tori is in Grade 3 with 20 other youngsters. The photograph was taken about 200 yards from an intersection almost equidistant from Tori's former home on Fyfe Street and the new small blue-sided home on Frances. Neither house is more than a few minutes walk away, even at a child's pace.

Rumours are everywhere here - the poisonous side of any small town - the most benign that a family member allegedly has recognized something familiar in the woman's walk.

Constable Maitland heard the same report herself two days ago, and promptly passed the information to the police support staff who are numbering all the tips - as of midday yesterday, there were more than 400 of these - and passing them in turn to the team of investigators, the core composed of Oxford officers with others drawn from the Ontario Provincial Police, who have been working around the clock to solve the case.

As is the norm in the modern age, the force has been subjected to second-guessing on both the local and international stage, with Woodstonians labouring under the erroneous impression that if the media knows nothing so must the investigators, and various missing-child experts from as far away as Virginia pronouncing upon how the force allegedly mishandled the case in the early hours.

Such criticism seems ill-founded: Constable Maitland said that Ms. McDonald first called police to report Tori missing at 6:06 p.m., when both day and evening shifts were around, with the result that officers scoured first the house itself (because young children can drop off to sleep like a stone, they are often discovered snoozing in unexpected places), then the immediate neighbourhood, retracing the little girl's steps with their canine unit.

When that turned up no trace of Tori, she was reported as missing nationally to the Canadian Police Information Centre and locally to neighbouring forces.

By about 3 a.m. on April 9, as the search continued through the witching hours, the first media notices went out. Constable Maitland guessed the detectives have had no more than 10 hours' sleep in the past five days, ditto the dispatchers taking all the tips and the support staff keeping track of them.

"If you knew these people like I know them," Constable Maitland said fiercely in her pleasant way yesterday, "you'd know they wouldn't take 10 hours sleep if you offered it to them ... to say they're working hard is an understatement. They're slaving."

Like the police, at Tori's school, children and parents struggled yesterday to come to grips not only with the fact of a child's disappearance, but with the national spotlight such events inevitably bring. Teachers met on Easter Monday to prepare for yesterday, trying to keep things as normal as possible for the children, while also bringing in eight Thames Valley District School Board social workers and psychologists. They were busy too, board spokeswoman Kate Young said later. "I think they're glad they're here," she said.

The pressure upon them all is enormous, and rising. Even Constable Maitland, naturally a sunny, full-glass sort of woman, has been cautioned not to appear as optimistic as she has been.

She knew that anyway. Her own little daughter, who at first told her to solve Tori's disappearance so she'd be back in time for Easter so her brother wouldn't eat all her chocolate, now just says, "Mummy! Concentrate!"

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