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Mother's anguish laid bare at vigil for missing Ontario girl

WOODSTOCK, Ont. - The heart-wrenching pain of a mother who does not know where her child is or if she is all right was laid bare Sunday night on the tear-stained face of Tara McDonald at a candlelight vigil for her missing eight-year-old daughter.

WOODSTOCK, Ont. - The heart-wrenching pain of a mother who does not know where her child is or if she is all right was laid bare Sunday night on the tear-stained face of Tara McDonald at a candlelight vigil for her missing eight-year-old daughter.

Victoria Stafford vanished Wednesday after school, around the time she was captured on a surveillance video walking with an unidentified woman. In the agonizing days since there have been no sightings of the little girl and police have not yet been able to identify the woman on the tape.

"Nobody can begin to imagine what our family is going through," McDonald said while choking back tears at a vigil in this southwestern Ontario city.

About 1,000 people held candles to the sky Sunday night and prayed for Victoria to return to her home safely. The family said they were overwhelmed by the support of the community.

Hundreds of volunteers have been searching for the girl and handing out flyers all over Woodstock, east of London.

"I know in my heart that she's OK and that we're going to find her," McDonald said. "It's just a matter of time."

She tightly clutched family and friends for support and wept for her missing daughter. Her son, 10-year-old Daryn, sobbed and nestled his face in his mother's neck. The children's father, Rodney Stafford, says his kids are "two peas in a pod" and his son misses Victoria very much.

The extended Stafford family gathered earlier Sunday night for Easter dinner, short one little girl whose absence has left a huge hole in their lives.

Rodney Stafford says he has been barely functioning in the days since his "baby girl" vanished. He said the holiday has made her disappearance that much more unbearable.

"I can't just walk up and grab both of my kids and hug them both and say, 'Look, the Easter bunny came,"' Stafford said in an interview Sunday.

"But I do have a bunch of stuff from the Easter bunny that I do plan on giving to Victoria. I'm really looking forward to giving it to her."

Stafford and his family have taken to wearing purple shirts and ribbons because it is Victoria's favourite colour. Each day that passes is harder than the last because he doesn't have his precious daughter to hold, Stafford said.

"It's becoming more of a reality," he said. "It's getting to be far more traumatizing...Even walking past flyers on poles or windows and stuff like that, it's really hitting home. I'll walk past a flyer and instantly break out crying."

Hundreds of flyers adorned with Victoria's smiling face hang all over the city, but despite more than 260 tips called into police, there has been absolutely no sign of the child since she vanished after school four days ago.

A large-scale search effort involving neighbouring police forces and hundreds of volunteers has scoured numerous lakes, ponds, wooded areas, brushes and properties - to no avail.

Police say they don't have enough evidence to even declare her disappearance a result of foul play.

The Grade 3 student was last seen leaving Oliver Stephens Public School, and fuzzy surveillance video shows her walking without a struggle with an unidentified woman, whom police call a "person of interest."

It appears to be the main clue to Victoria's disappearance and police have not publicly revealed any other leads in the case since she vanished. Local police have now called in the behavioural sciences unit of the Ontario Provincial Police to help.

"What we're trying to do is basically sort of profile the person...to help us get some insight on what type of person may be involved in something like this and maybe give us a new lead or to help us with the lead we have on the surveillance tape," said Oxford Community Police Const. Laurie-Anne Maitland.

Stafford said he has watched the video more than 200 times in hopes of spotting something that could lead to his daughter's return.

"That video gives me a little bit of relief, in a sense," Stafford added. "Seeing her in the video walking away happy with somebody she (apparently) knows kind of makes me feel she's safe. She didn't go away struggling, she wasn't scared."

Victoria's mother, Tara McDonald, told a national news agency she has also watched the tape many times but can't figure out the woman's identity.

Oxford Community Police have not said they believe Victoria was abducted by the woman on the surveillance video. Maitland said there are many possible scenarios of what happened to Victoria and police are looking at them all.

Until Sunday night's vigil, McDonald has largely stayed out of the public eye. She was not answering her home phone and in her voicemail message she thanked people for their support, but said she was keeping the line open for any "emergency calls."

Stafford and McDonald separated in December and he called the relationship "an ongoing struggle."

He said his estranged wife is handling the situation the way any mother would - not well.

"We haven't always gotten along, but it's really tough for me to see her cry, especially when it's over one of our children," Stafford said.

He insisted that he doesn't believe any of Victoria's relatives are behind her disappearance.

But police said they aren't ruling out that possibility based on the limited evidence they have so far.

"I think everyone ... who knows this child and has contact with this child will be part of the investigation," Maitland said Sunday.

"I don't know that anyone's been ruled out."

The search is being confined to the city of Woodstock and nearby parks for the time being.

Victoria is described as four-feet-five, weighing about 62 pounds, with blue eyes and blond hair cut just below her ears.

She was last seen wearing a denim skirt, a green shirt, and a black Hannah Montana jacket with a fur-lined hood.

She may also be carrying a purple and pink Bratz backpack.

The family has pledged a $10,000 reward for information leading to her recovery and an independent Quebec businessman has come forward with a second reward offering $5,000 for information about Victoria's disappearance.

 
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