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Stafford disappearance mystery deepens as ground search ends

WOODSTOCK, Ont. - She vanished days ago, last seen leaving school with an unknown woman in a grainy surveillance video, but police have declined to term her case an abduction and have not ruled it a result of foul play.

WOODSTOCK, Ont. - She vanished days ago, last seen leaving school with an unknown woman in a grainy surveillance video, but despite the troubling circumstances of eight-year-old Victoria Stafford's disappearance police have declined to term her case an abduction and have not ruled it a result of foul play.

"I believe she's alive," Const. Laurie-Anne Maitland of Oxford Community Police said Monday. "I don't know why, I just do."

Police in the puzzling case have called off the ground search for the little girl while continuing to go door-to-door in the area around her home and school, indicating they believe she remains in the community.

Victoria, known as Tori to her friends and family, hasn't been seen since she was captured in the surveillance video being led away by a woman her parents say they do not recognize. Police say it appears as though Tori is going with the woman willingly.

And although police call the woman with long dark hair and a bulky white jacket a "person of interest" they have not named her as a suspect.

While Woodstock Mayor Michael Harding said residents of the rural community near London, Ont., are growing more anxious with every passing day, Const. Maitland expressed relief Monday that no evidence has been uncovered suggesting Tori has been harmed.

Maitland, who has been the face of the force's investigation, said she is heartened that days of scouring the lakes, ponds, woods and brushes of Woodstock has found nothing relevant.

"When we're actively doing a grid search, we're not looking for necessarily a happy, healthy eight-year-old," Maitland said.

"When we're doing the ground search, every time I hear there's no news, that's a good thing."

Maitland went so far as to say she felt certain Tori is alive and well.

Volunteer searchers from the community have been mounting their own effort and say they will continue their own ground search.

While they are in constant contact with Tori's parents, the only clue police will talk about publicly is the woman in the video.

Spotted as they walked away together from the school ground, the mystery woman has been described as between 19 and 25 years of age, and petite at about five-foot-one or five-foot-two and between 120 and 125 pounds.

Making it clear they believe the video may be a key to the case, police issued a new version of it Monday afternoon.

Their technicians had removed some of the graininess, giving what investigators hoped was a clearer view of the woman last seen with Tori.

Community members couldn't help but recognize Tori if she is spotted. Her beaming face - alternately photographed with her chin-length blond hair held back from her eyes, with sunglasses or a distinctive hair clip - adorns hundreds of flyers plastered all over the city, from telephone poles, to homes and businesses and even on many car windows.

About 1,000 concerned residents turned out to a candlelight vigil on Easter Sunday, in an outpouring of support that overwhelmed the girl's father, Rodney Stafford.

He and Tori's mother Tara McDonald separated in December, Stafford said. But Johanne Barette, a friend of McDonald said Tori's mother has been with her boyfriend James Gorris. McDonald lives in a house a short walk from Tori's school, reportedly with her boyfriend.

Stafford and McDonald have a 10-year-old son named Daryn, who is said to have walked his little sister home from school every day, except Wednesday, when he opted to show kindness to a disabled friend and escort that person in a different direction.

McDonald shied away from the media spotlight in the first days of her daughter's disappearance, saying nothing until going tearfully before the cameras on the weekend.

Her estranged husband went public with emotional pleas for his daughter's safe return. He said at one point he hadn't always been there for his children, and suggested at another time relations with McDonald were not always easy.

He called his relationship with her "an ongoing struggle" but said it was difficult to see the mother's anguish "especially when it's over one of our children."

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

The couple appeared briefly together at the vigil, but have strictly made statements to the media separately.

"I've had a lot of problems come up in my life and stuff like that, and I haven't always been there for my kids, but this is my baby girl and it's absolutely hurting now," Stafford said.

Samantha Wilson, founder and president of Kidproof Canada and a former London, Ont., city police officer, said it makes sense that investigators would focus on the video.

Although she said she could not comment specifically on the case in Woodstock, Wilson said the bottom line is that typically children are hurt by people that they know.

It's very, very rare that a complete stranger is the culprit," she said.

"In any incident when it comes to child injury or abduction or any issues with crimes against children, it's usually somebody that the child knows or that is known by or to the family," Wilson said in an interview from Surrey, B.C.

She said although it might seem incongruous for police to call off a ground search before turning up any clues, police typically change tactics for a reason.

"Generally speaking, at any time that there's a change in the course of action, that usually means there's been some sort of information that's come through that's driven the investigation in a different direction," Wilson said.

She added that it was also perfectly reasonable that the search has been limited to city boundaries.

"Children are usually found fairly close to where they were last seen," Wilson said.

 
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