WOODSTOCK, Ont. - People on the streets of the rural Ontario town from where little Tori Stafford vanished almost four months ago expressed overwhelming sadness mixed with relief Tuesday after it was confirmed remains discovered on farmland in a neighbouring community were hers.
By midday, some still hadn't heard that the months-long search for the eight-year-old elementary school pupil had come to an abrupt halt with the identification of remains found Sunday off a farm lane southeast of Mount Forest, Ont.
Esther Donnelly held on to her shopping cart and shook her head as she absorbed the news.
"I'm so sorry that it happened. I'm glad that they found her, but it's too bad that it had to be this way."
Donnelly said as the mother of seven children and grandmother of eight, she feels horrified by the tragedy.
"It just eats at your heart."
Al Yeo is from London, Ont., but owns a laundromat next to Domino's Pizza on Dundas Street in Woodstock, where Tori lived. As the week's laundry spun dry beside him, the small businessman said he was shocked at the news, but pleased to know Tori's body had been found, for the sake of her family.
"It's a blessing," Yeo said.
"It's hard on the family but all around it's better to know where she is."
Leanne Hoffer has lived in the southwestern Ontario community for 20 years and said she went to high school with Rodney Stafford, Tori's father. Hoffer called the news "brutally sad."
"It's a really, really sad day for Woodstock today."
Mayor Michael Harding said the horrific case has deeply affected the community.
"We're probably looking at our kids in a different light but we cannot give our lives over to fear. And I think that this has caused us to maybe second guess whether our kids are safe," Harding said.
At a news conference first thing Tuesday morning, it was left to Rod Freeman, acting chief of Oxford police, to disclose that dental records had to be used to identify the remains which had been well weathered by the elements.
Tori was last seen April 8, caught on grainy surveillance video leaving her school with a dark-haired woman.
At Tori's mother's home Tuesday morning, anyone who ventured up the wooden steps found a handwritten note taped to the screen door. It was signed by Tara McDonald, who held regular afternoon news conferences while there was still hope her daughter was still alive, but has since shied away from the spotlight.
"Please respect my family's wishes today and give us peace and time to process everything that is happening. I will contact the media if I wish to speak to anyone. Please do not knock on the door."
Ontario provincial police Det. Insp. Bill Renton said he could not comment on a cause of death.
He said an examination of the remains is continuing at Toronto's Centre of Forensic Sciences and that it could take a week or longer to complete.
Renton, the lead investigator in the Stafford case, said the next step for police is to prepare for court.
Two Woodstock residents, Terri-Lynne McClintic and Michael Rafferty, are charged with first-degree murder and kidnapping in the death and disappearance of the girl.
Their trials are not expected to begin until sometime next year.
McClintic's lawyer, Jeanine LeRoy, said while she spoke with her client twice on Monday, she had no comment on whether McClintic's involvement with the search would help her case.
"I can tell you that I know that the police on Sunday were certainly working from the information she had provided previously," she said.
LeRoy told Woodstock radio station CIHR that she would discuss the possibility of a plea bargain for McClintoc as a result of for her help with the search with the Crown.
Freeman said the discovery of Tori's remains "helps us in a big way in bringing this case to court." He said the court case will then be followed by a "long healing process."
He said the community has gone through a "terrible, terrible experience" and the discovery of Tori's remains "brings us a little bit closer to closure" and some sense of relief to her family.
Provincial police commissioner Julian Fantino offered "deep regrets" to Tori's family and the community as they grieve the loss of their little girl.
Fantino said he hopes justice is done and that "we need to be mindful, conscientious and caring about the well-being of our children."