Monday, April 13, 2009

Family makes Facebook plea for girl's return



 The family of a missing eight-year-old girl in Southwestern Ontario is pleading with possible abductors to contact them directly on a cellphone number they posted yesterday on the social networking website Facebook.

The uncle of Victoria (Tori) Stafford, who hasn't been seen since she walked away from her Woodstock, Ont., school on Wednesday afternoon with a mysterious woman, has repeatedly posted messages on a Facebook group devoted to recovering the little girl.

“This is a message to the individual or individuals who have TORI, I'm posting my cell # so you can contact me. I believe you are reading this. Let me know where we can get together and you can leave Tori with me no questions asked,” wrote Rob Stafford.

It's a step the family says it needed to take, now that hundreds of volunteers and police officers have come up empty after scouring for clues in the small town's forests, rivers and ponds.


  
“Who knows where she could be by now? She could be on the way to the West Coast for all we know,” said Rebecca Stafford, Victoria's 29-year-old aunt who flew back to her hometown of 39,000 from her new home province of Alberta to help with the search.

Ms. Stafford said her family has repeatedly launched into impromptu brainstorming sessions about the grainy video that offers the only clue about what might have happened to the little girl. Police say the video, which was taken from a camera outside Oliver Stephens Public School but at such a distance that faces are difficult to make out, shows a woman in a white puffy coat and black pants walking side-by-side with the Grade Three pupil. There is no sign of a struggle.

“We have all sat down and discussed it ad nauseam,” Ms. Stafford said. “Anyone that we have thought of – of course we've shared that information with the authorities.”

She added: “We don't know if we do know the person and it's not someone that she's met. … Honestly, I don't think that I know the person.”

Compounding the frustration and anxiety over Victoria's disappearance is all the second-guessing of her friends and family. They wonder whether they might have prevented what appears to be an abduction if they had done something differently that day, Ms. Stafford said.

Oxford Community Police Constable Laurie-Anne Maitland said the local police force is being assisted by members of the Ontario Provincial Police Behavioural Sciences unit, whose job it is to try to determine what kind of individual could have taken Victoria.

Police have received more than 260 phone tips since Victoria disappeared, Constable Maitland said. A Facebook group set up by a family member now has more than 22,000 members.

A candlelight vigil was held Sunday night, just down the street from the police station.

“Nobody can begin to imagine what our family is going through,” Victoria's mother, Tara McDonald, said while choking back tears at a vigil in this southwestern Ontario city.

About 1,000 people held candles to the sky Sunday night and prayed for Victoria to return to her home safely. The family said they were overwhelmed by the support of the community.

Hundreds of volunteers have been searching for the girl and handing out flyers all over Woodstock, east of London.

“I know in my heart that she's OK and that we're going to find her,” McDonald said. “It's just a matter of time.”

She tightly clutched family and friends for support and wept for her missing daughter. Her son, 10-year-old Daryn, sobbed and nestled his face in his mother's neck. The children's father, Rodney Stafford, says his kids are “two peas in a pod” and his son misses Victoria very much.

Victoria lives only a few blocks from the school with her mother, who is separated from her father, Rodney Stafford.

“I wonder if she's sleeping, where she's sleeping, if she has a blanket,” a sobbing Ms. MacDonald said in an interview with CTV. “Whoever has her, are they taking care of her general needs? Is she able to have a bath? It sounds silly to some people, but I worry about her basic needs being met.”

She urged Victoria, if she was watching TV, to run away from her captors and try to phone home.

Victoria's older brother used to walk her home from school, Ms. Stafford said. But Wednesday just happened to be the day that 10-year-old Daryn Stafford escorted a disabled child home in a different direction.

“So he was trying to do something nice as a gesture, and ended up having this happen,” Ms. Stafford said.

The one thing the family isn't second-guessing is the decision by the police to not issue an Amber Alert – the co-ordinated warning system that police can use when they think a child has been kidnapped. While some bloggers and online supporters have been critical of Oxford Community Police for not issuing an alert, the police have said the case didn't meet several criteria: The disappearance isn't a confirmed abduction, and by the time they saw the video, it was several hours after it had been taken.

“This is strictly my opinion … but I don't begrudge the police for dealing with the issue the way that they have and I think they've done a phenomenal job,” Ms. Stafford said yesterday.

“I wish it had been done, but I can understand why it wasn't – and that's the impression I get from most of my family, too. I haven't heard of anything negative towards the police and the way they've been handling it.”