Saturday, April 18, 2009

Tori Stafford's family clinging to hope

Apr 18, 2009 04:30 AM

At two modest houses, a five-minute drive apart, desperate hopefulness is shared equally. But in the crucial how and why of 8-year-old Victoria Stafford's abduction, those who love the child most fiercely diverge significantly.

Mom Tara McDonald, who emerged from her home yesterday to face a phalanx of reporters, believes the youngster has been taken by a stranger, largely because she cannot fathom how someone known to the family could do such a terrible thing.

In a hamlet like Woodstock, however, even people you don't know might know you, or know of you and your child, and have malice in their heart.

"It's a small town. Not everybody's gonna like you, you know? Bottom line, I don't feel I have any vindictive enemies whatsoever. So I hope it's a stranger because I don't think that I would let anybody into my life, or my circle, who would do something like this."

Yet at the home of Tori's father, McDonald's ex-husband Rodney Stafford, family members – also at a loss over why this particular child was targeted – draw strength from the possibility that someone who knew the little girl has her. That's their gut feeling from the image of Tori walking away with an unidentified woman in a white coat, as captured by a security camera.

"Given the way that Victoria was in the video, we all believe that she looked comfortable and content," said Rodney's younger sister Rebecca Stafford, who bolted from university in Edmonton in the middle of exams on Tuesday to be with her family. "So we do believe that it is someone that she knows."

There is some comfort in cleaving to that scenario, on this side of Tori's family tree.

"For me, honestly, I would prefer that it wasn't a stranger," Tori's doting aunt continued. "My belief is that if it's somebody that knows her, there's less of a chance that she would be hurt by that person."

It's all groping in the darkness on Day 10 of Tori's disappearance, as provincial police now take over the investigation.

Last night, the OPP said an "intensified search" would begin today with a search of local waterways by the force's underwater search and recovery unit.

Oxford Police Chief Ron Fraser warned residents of "significant police activity" for the next week or longer as the two police forces follow up on more than 900 tips they have received.

McDonald, for one, suspects her daughter is no longer around these parts and is grateful the police are taking a broader view.

"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 her in Woodstock ... because she would be spotted in a New York minute."

The child's photo is posted all over town, her image burned into the brain: that lovely face, those wide-spaced eyes, her sassy smile.

She should be fairly recognizable, with media picking up the story and police relaying her picture across the province, the country, the world.

"The further that I hear it's reaching – Europe, the States – the more confident I feel that someone's going to see her, somewhere," McDonald insisted. "She's very beautiful, has very (distinctive) features – her bright blonde hair, her pale-coloured skin, her humongous blue eyes. I've never seen another child that looks like her."

Fraser, facing media yesterday for the first time since Tori vanished, said Tori is no longer a "missing person," as she had been classified for more than a week. This is now, officially, an "abduction."

"It's about time," her mother stated flatly. "It's been an abduction since the day she went missing."

Local police have come in for criticism for not issuing an Amber Alert immediately on April 8, when they were notified the child had not returned from school. Fraser said the department had followed "protocol" and Tori's disappearance did not meet the Amber criteria: there was no vehicle for the public to watch out for, no description or even knowledge of an abductor (until the video surfaced) and no indication that Tori was in danger of serious bodily harm.

OPP Det. Insp. Bill Renton is the new case manager. Labelling the disappearance an abduction, he maintained, "will have no bearing on how we deploy our resources."

Police do have leads, Renton stressed. "I don't think anything's been missed."

But he sounded a grim note. "Always, in a police investigation, you have to look at the dark side. That's always in the back of your mind when you start any investigation. The investigation's been alive to the potential of criminality or a poor outcome. Nothing's changed."

Rebecca Stanford agreed, seeing no notable distinction between missing person and abduction, though the announcement returned needed public attention to the matter.

"I think it's semantics. I think that's only a word. It doesn't change what's happened."

But Tara McDonald, while expressing general satisfaction with the local constabulary, sees things differently. "I wish that the OPP, and whoever they thought would have more insight, was there from Day One."


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