Sunday, April 12, 2009

Where's little Tori?
Sat, April 11, 2009
Birth father pleas for her return

Elaine Rodrigues looks into a van window yesterday in Woodstock during the search for Victoria "Tori" Stafford. (Elliot Ferguson, Sun Media)
WOODSTOCK – Easter Sunday arrived here this morning but not missing eight-year-old Tori Stafford as police sought help from citizens to identify and find a woman seen walking with the girl four days ago.

”The Oxford Community Police are requesting the assistance of the public in identifying the unknown female,” Police Const. Laurie-Anne Maitland wrote Sunday morning in a media release.

Her request came as family of the missing girl made an emotional appeal for help, handing out purple ribbons, the favourite color of a girl whose nickname was “chub chubs.”

“I want my daughter home,” birth father Rodney Stafford said in Southside Park Saturday afternoon. “I want her home.”

While Stafford and Tori’s mother have lived apart for years, he has played a role raising Tori and her older brother, and friends say he has been a devoted father.

That bond was evident yesterday.

“No matter where you are. I don’t care where you are, just, I want you to come home, baby. I will come get you wherever you are. Just call. I want to hear that call,” he said.

Stafford once vowed he wouldn’t sleep until he found Tori, but by the weekend, exhaustion gained the upper hand, as he slept six hours Saturday morning.

“I know everybody is doing what they can, as quickly as they can. I’ve got all the help I need but it still seems like it’s not enough because she is not in my arms.”

His pain is a community’s sorrow nearly four days after Tori left her public school Wednesday afternoon.

Police in Woodstock, Ontario still don’t know what happened to her after a security camera recorded her walking with an unidentified woman minutes after leaving school.

Maitland told The Free Press Saturday afternoon police have uncovered no evidence of Tori since she was caught on video between 3:30 pm and 4 p.m. Wednesday afternoon.

Even the exact timing of that video remains in doubt: The camera’s clock showed 3:32 p.m but officials at her public school say she was seen leaving after school let out at 3:40 p.m.

“We don’t know very much more,” Maitland said after hosting a brief conference for media that have come across the country to Woodstock.

More than one witness saw Tori with the unidentified woman in front of the security camera — those statements led police to conclude the blurry image was Tori, Maitland said.

While there have been a few hundred tips since then none have led to the discovery of evidence, she said.

“There are lots of different scenarios were that we could be looking at,” she said.

In that information vacuum there has been an explosion of speculation and suggestion in the virtual world, where posters to Facebook and Youtube are spreading rumors, one of which Maitland set out to dispel this afternoon.

A poster to Youtube claimed police had found Tori’s sweater, but Maitland said that while clothing has been found, it is definitely doesn’t belong to the eight-year-old girl because it’s too big.

Her family organized Saturday’s rally and ribbon making in the park to thank the community and mobilize more help search for the little girl.

“I grew up in Woodstock and most of my family has stayed here,” said Rebecca Stafford, Victoria’s aunt.

“We do have deep roots here. We’ve never seen anything like this before either. “To see it happening and to have it happening because of somebody that we love, it definitely brings it a lot closer to home and makes us appreciate it even more,” she said.

Rebecca Stafford set up a Facebook group that, as of 7pm Saturday, had almost 17,000 members.

Some are expected to attend a candlelight vigil at 8 p.m. Sunday in front of Zeller’s on Dundas Street in Woodstock.

In a brief press conference Saturday, police said they are doing everything they can to find the missing girl.

“We have sent out alerts to every agency. This is national news,” Maitland said.

“Everybody in Canada has Victoria in their hearts right now.”

As the story grew in national scope, some have questioned why police didn’t issued an Amber Alert -- an emergency appeal to police forces and the public for information -- when the girl went missing.

Police said they hadn't taken that step because they had no evidence of an abduction.

The girl's family has been "a wreck" since she failed to arrive home from Oliver Stephens public school three days ago, her grandfather said.

"It's been tough. It's been very tough -- to lose your grandchild, it's terrible," Jim McDonald said.

"I haven't been able to sleep. I haven't been able to eat. I haven't been able to do anything," he said as he arrived at his daughter's Frances Street house, four blocks from the school.

Dozens of police from Oxford, Waterloo Region and London, including dog search teams and trained London search and rescue volunteers, have joined the search and were to resume efforts today.

When searchers came to Randi Millen’s door, she broke down in tears when they handed her the poster she had made to help find her niece.

“This is my niece,” Millen said. “We’re not sleeping, we’re not eating. We’re going on nothing.”

Tori's mother, Tara McDonald, and her longtime partner, James Gorris, haven’t spoken publicly since making an appeal for help days ago and pledging a $10,000 reward for their daughter's safe return.

A security video taken from College Avenue secondary school in Woodstock shows a girl police confirm was Tori walking with an unidentified woman along Fyfe Avenue.


The disappearance

- When last seen, Victoria (Tori) Stafford, 8, was reportedly wearing a green shirt, a black velvet pleated skirt, black-and-white shoes and a black Hannah Montana jacket with white fur-lined hood. She was carrying a purple and pink Bratz purse.

- The woman seen on the video walking with Victoria is described as white, 19 to 25, five-foot-one, 120-125 pounds, with a straight black ponytail past the shoulders. She was wearing tight black jeans and a white, puffy winter jacket.

- Police ask anyone who thinks they may know the woman or anything about Victoria's whereabouts to call them at 519-537-2323 or Crimestoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).

- Police say they don't need more volunteer searchers. They are co-ordinating 150 volunteers already and have 250 more offers of help they can call upon if needed.

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