Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tori's family gathers to share memories about their 'girly girl'

One night last July, little Victoria Stafford was homesick while visiting an aunt in Alberta when she couldn't reach her mother right away on the phone. She panicked and called her aunt Randi Millen in Woodstock, instead, just to feel connected to home.

"I spoke with her for a fair amount of time and I comforted her," Millen said at her home Tuesday.

The eight-year-old, known as Tori to her friends and family, vanished nearly a week ago, and her aunt can't help but think how upset the girl must be to be away from the comforts of home and family.

"She was upset and crying," she said of that phone call from Tori last summer. "It kills me now because I know . . .I can't call her and comfort her."

Tori disappeared without a trace last Wednesday after school. The only tangible lead police have talked about is a surveillance video from around the time Tori went missing showing her walking with a woman with long brown hair and a puffy white coat. No one, not her family, not her friends, knows who she is or why she was with the girl.

Tori's family has been wracking their brains about the little girl's mysterious disappearance, watching the surveillance tape hundreds of times in hopes of spotting something.

"I know it's Tori," her grandmother Doreen Graichen said. "I'd bet my life on it. . . her personality, her body language, her walk. She's a bubbly little kid and when she's happy she's got this little bounce to her step."

"That's what we see in that video," Millen added. "We see a happy child walking along with somebody they're comfortable with."

But they're completely baffled as to what that could mean.

So all they can do is talk. They talk about the mystery woman, they talk about rumours and what police have told them. But mostly, they talk about Tori.

The Stafford family has been gathering at Millen and her husband Steve's house in Woodstock every day since Tori disappeared, sometimes with her father Rodney Stafford, sometimes without him as they give him space. At the Millens on Tuesday to share stories about Tori was the girl's grandmother, Doreen Graichen and her children: Rob Stafford, 37, Randi Millen, 31, Rebecca Stafford, 29 Russell Edmonds, 26 and Steve Millen.


Their looks of grief and distress turn to broad smiles when they speak about Tori, who they describe as a creative girl.

"Glitter and glue and earrings and bracelets, you name it," Randi Millen said. "Candles, whatever craft you can throw together. Give her some glue and some paper and she'll come up with the coolest things. She loves writing little poems and cards."

Her creativity extended to Christmas presents this year. Tori decided to get gifts for everyone herself. But limited by the resources of an eight year old, Tori went around her own house picking out gifts for her family. Millen got an Avon book and Graichen got one of Tori's mother's old necklaces -- with permission, of course.

"She's a girly girl from head to toe," Graichen said. "She loves the dress-up stuff. She loves dresses. . . clips and bows and headbands."

A pretty clip pulls Tori's hair back from her smiling face in many of the flyers that are all over the city, on telephone polls, in homes and businesses, on car windows and even taped to some people's jackets.

The flyers went up almost immediately after she disappeared. Soon afterward came a Facebook site, started by Rebecca Stafford, which now has more than 47,000 members. She lives in Alberta -- as does Edmonds -- and hated being so far away when she got the news.

Millen describes what followed as chaos. There have been a lot of tears from Tori's aunts and uncles, but most of their own children don't understand the severity of the situation. They just believe Tori went away for a little while but she is coming back soon, Millen said.

"They don't understand the danger that she could possibly be in," she said.

Tori's brother, 10-year-old Daryn, seems to understand all too well.

Rob Stafford said he was driving with the boy said: `Uncle Rob, I don't care who did this, they better be charged."'

Tori and Daryn's parents, Rodney Stafford and Tara McDonald, separated about six years ago, the family said. McDonald's boyfriend, James Gorris, has been part of the children's lives for a few years as he and McDonald have dated on and off, the family said.

Stafford has said he hasn't always been there for his children, but that he is broken now that his "baby girl" is missing. He is going back to school in the hopes of a career in corrections and giving his children the best life possible, his mother said.

"It doesn't matter what is said anywhere," Graichen said. "He adores his kids. He loves his children and he'd put his own life down for them, no doubt."

The family is operating on little more than fumes and faith that their little girl will soon return. They take it minute by minute, second by second, they said. Their hearts race whenever the phone rings.

Whenever Tori comes home, "It will be the biggest sigh of relief this town's ever heard," Graichen said.

Parents at Tori's school dropped their children off amid a heavy air of worry Tuesday as classes resumed without the missing girl following the Easter long weekend.

"I'm terrified for my children," said Heather Ditchfield, a mother of two, including an eight-year-old girl.