Sunday, April 12, 2009

Mystery deepens in case of missing girl
WOODSTOCK, Ont. – Rodney Stafford has seen the blurry, minute-long surveillance video more than a thousand times but, for the life of him, says he cannot recognize the woman walking off with his 8-year-old daughter, Victoria.
"I keep going through it hoping to find something that will identify (the woman), but there's nothing," a tearful Stafford said yesterday. "It almost looks as if she's skipping and is happy to be with the woman. But who is the woman; I have no idea."
It's the question on everyone's mind.
Victoria, known to her friends as Tori, was last seen leaving Oliver Stephens school, where she is a Grade 3 student, at 3:32 p.m. Wednesday. A blurry image captured by a nearby high school's camera showed Tori accompanied by a woman. Police are calling the woman a "person of interest" and are asking her to come forward to help with the investigation.
Four days, a massive search operation and at least 200 tips later, there is no clue to what happened to Tori, or the identity of the woman in the video.
Stafford and Tara McDonald, Tori's mother, separated a few months ago. Stafford said he regularly sees Tori and Daryn, his 10-year-old son. The day Tori went missing, the children were supposed to spend the night with him.
Except for one TV interview, McDonald, who neighbours say lives with her boyfriend and children, has not spoken to the media. There was no one at her Frances St. home yesterday.
Drew Long, her next-door neighbour, said he's seen her leaving the house early every day "and she always looks as if she's been crying."
Stafford, speaking outside the police station yesterday, ruled out the involvement of anyone in the family. "No, there is no disgruntled family at all. This makes no sense," he said, waving posters with the missing child's photo and description.
"I am totally crushed but I am not going to give up hope," said the distraught father, choking back tears.
"My little girl is out there somewhere and she will be home soon – that is my belief."
But he admits he is beginning to panic as time goes by.
"You cannot take two steps without seeing Tori's face (on missing posters) stuck on a wall or glued to a window. It's all over newspapers, TV and radio but there is still no clue to where she is."
Police, too, are calling it a highly unusual case.
"Looking at the video, it's easy for me to say Tori is not resisting (the woman)," said Const. Laurie-Anne Maitland. "That means she knows her and it makes me hopeful that she is well. Sometimes, people take kids because they love them."
In many disappearances, there are sightings or some indication of what may have happened. "There is almost nothing here," said Maitland. "And if we didn't have the video surveillance, we wouldn't have had anything at all."
But the lack of evidence of foul play keeps Maitland hopeful that Tori is alive and well. "If we found her jacket in a creek, I would think of the worst. But we haven't."
The deepening mystery has consumed Woodstock, a city of 36,000 about 45 kilometres east of London. Almost every business has a colour poster glued on either the door or the window; every home in the Frances St. neighbourhood, where Tori's family had recently moved, has a similar flyer.
Talk in the city revolves around the disappearance.
At a Pizza Pizza, a group of teens sat clutching a sheaf of posters. "We are just taking a break from handing these out," said Tendra Murray, a high school student. "Tori and what happened to her is on everyone's mind."
Brenda Fitzmaurice and her husband, Marcel, former neighbours of Tori's on Fyfe Ave., handed out flyers at a nearby plaza. "This is a close-knit community and everyone knows everyone," said Brenda. "We are surprised no one has recognized the woman (in the video)."
Maitland Darragh, who lives on Fyfe Ave., has glued the posters on all the windows of his van. "Someone, somewhere is bound to recognize her. It can't be a mystery forever."
Meanwhile, supported by search and rescue personnel, police used boats and dogs to look for the missing girl yesterday. Firefighters searched Brick Pond, in the city's east end, and on the opposite side of the city, officers combed the banks of the Thames River.
Search groups trudged through surrounding parks, riverside paths and railway tracks.
Last night, Tori's family organized a public show of support and handed out purple ribbons even as dozens of people from Ingersoll, London and Stratford and other communities joined in the search.
A family friend has organized a candlelight vigil for 8 p.m. tonight in downtown Woodstock.

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