Saturday, April 18, 2009

Police go in one direction, girl's mother feels otherwise

Investigators cite 'substantial direction' in identifying woman seen on tape leading Tori Stafford away from school
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E-mail Christie Blatchford 
April 17, 2009 at 9:56 PM EDT
WOODSTOCK, ONT. — Police have a “pretty substantial direction” in identifying the mysterious woman in the white jacket who was last seen walking with eight-year-old Victoria (Tori) Stafford.

The sunny little blonde, carrying her purple Bratz purse and wearing a Hannah Montana jacket, was captured in this woman's company shortly after her Grade 3 class let out on the afternoon of April 8. The two were caught on a surveillance camera – the videotape grainy and taken from about 200 metres away – at a nearby high school, just blocks away from Tori's home.

In the intervening 10 days, as speculation about who the woman is swirled in this town of about 35,000 southwest of Toronto, police hadn't indicated they were making any progress in identifying her.

But with the little girl's disappearance now formally labelled an abduction and the Ontario Provincial Police firmly in the lead, OPP Detective-Inspector Bill Renton was asked at a joint OPP-Oxford Community Police news conference yesterday what he made of the fact that no one apparently has been able to identify the woman.

OPP Det.-Insp. William Renton speaks at a press conference in Woodstock, Ont., Friday, as Chief Ron Fraser of the Oxford Community Police looks on. The mysterious disappearance of eight-year-old Victoria Stafford was upgraded to an abduction Friday from a missing persons' case after Ontario's provincial police took the lead role in the investigation. (The Canadian Press)
After a noticeable pause, Det.-Insp. Renton replied, “We're actively looking at many facets of that. To say anything more would be rather irresponsible. We have pretty substantial direction in that regard. … We have some leads and we're looking at some leads.”

The woman has only ever been described as white, young (estimated to be between 19 and 25), about five-foot-two and 125 pounds, with long dark hair.

Several hours later, when Tori's mother, Tara McDonald, came to meet the media and was informed that police had suggested they were closer to identifying the woman, she said, “I hope they do, I really hope that they do.”

Wearing a shiny black-and-white print sundress and what appeared to be freshly painted purple toenails showing in strappy sandals, her long brown hair slicked back in a ponytail, Ms. McDonald appeared mollified that Tori's disappearance is now being called an abduction – “It's about time,” she said, adding that “it's been an abduction since the day she went missing” – but appeared to part company with investigators who remain concentrated on Woodstock and environs.

“Go as far as you possibly can,” she urged them, “because if she was in Woodstock somebody would have seen her, somebody would have given more information, more tips – something.

“I don't feel somebody would be stupid enough to keep Victoria in Woodstock, you know. … I just want it to go further. I want them to start looking outside the Woodstock area because nobody in Woodstock, like I said, would be stupid enough to keep her in Woodstock because she would be spotted in a New York minute and it would be over for whoever's done this.”

She seemed pleased at the international attention the case is garnering, and said, “I'm more confident the further it goes. The further that I hear it's reaching – Europe, the States – the more confident I feel that someone's going to see her somewhere.”

Tori, she added, “is a very beautiful … she has very distinguished features – her bright blonde hair, her pale-coloured skin, her humungous blue eyes. I've never seen another child that looks like her.

“So if people in Europe or the United States are made aware of this, they're going to be keeping their eye out, they're going to be keeping this fresh in their mind so they can find Victoria.”

Yet Det.-Insp. Renton was blunt that “the focus of the evidence is still here in the city of Woodstock,” though he acknowledged “there's many possibilities and you can't rule that out.”

Ms. McDonald has always said that on the videotape, Tori doesn't seem her normal ebullient self; she was a “hop-skip-jumper,” she has said, and both she and Tori's big brother, 10-year-old Daryn, believe Tori appears subdued. Ms. McDonald said she continues to believe her daughter was taken by a stranger.

“I like to think it was a stranger,” she said, “because I would not like to think that any friend or acquaintance or anybody that I know would do something like this.”

But police remain convinced the little girl went with the mystery woman without a struggle. “If you look at the video,” Det.-Insp. Renton said, “it certainly appears that Victoria was walking willingly.”

The police are joined in that view by Tori's father, Rodney Stafford, and by the members of his family.

The little girl's youngest aunt, 29-year-old Rebecca Stafford, who flew in last week from Sherwood Park, Alta., to be with her brother, reiterated yesterday that “we all believe that she looked comfortable and content. So we do believe that it is someone that she knows.”

Her role in the family, Ms. Stafford said with a grin, is to be “the cool aunt,” the one who lives out west and whose job is to spoil Tori rotten, which she did last summer when the little girl flew out with her paternal grandmother for a visit. Until Tori's disappearance, Ms. Stafford was most recently home in Woodstock in February for her reading week – she's a student at Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, about to graduate.

She joined Det.-Insp. Renton and Oxford Police Chief Ron Fraser in deeming the switch from “missing persons” to “abduction” not terribly significant.

For the police, the change appears to mean that the investigative team will be managed by an officer experienced in such cases, and faster access to the resources of the OPP. For Ms. Stafford and her family, while a welcome step at the right time, the move is a matter of “semantics” and all officers have “provided the same level of effort regardless” of the nomenclature.

Her niece is a “very tough little girl,” Ms. Stafford said, and would be aware that “this [her captivity] isn't right. I believe she would be keeping optimistic,” she said, adding again, “This is someone who knows her.”

Asked about the mystery woman on the videotape, Ms. Stafford answered, with evident care, “We are certain we can't identify her based on that footage.”

While any scenario but having Tori home safe again is alarming, Ms. Stafford said she hopes that whoever has the little girl is someone who knows her, as opposed to a stranger.

“My belief is if it's somebody that knows her, there's less of a chance that she would be hurt by that person,” she said, maintaining her composure even though what she clearly meant was that it is inconceivable to her that anyone who knows Tori Stafford doesn't love her.

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