WOODSTOCK, Ont. – The mother of Victoria Stafford emerged from her home Friday to once again face a barrage of questions and a wall of television cameras, but the message of hope she delivered almost daily for her daughter’s return became instead a grieving parent’s remembrance of a beautiful child.
“All you have to do is look at her,” said Tara McDonald, her large dark sunglasses not able to conceal the tears she was fighting back.
“Just remember her because she was the prettiest, most beautiful little girl in the world.”
Victoria, known as Tori, was abducted on April 8 outside her school. For the past six weeks McDonald and her ex-husband Rodney Stafford fought to keep Tori’s story in the news, hoping that the pictures of their beaming daughter printed and broadcast all over the country would lead to her safe return.
Even when the stories focused on suspicion surrounding McDonald she faced the cameras.
On Friday, she said some community members have apologized for doubting her. But McDonald lashed out at police for zeroing in on her as their prime suspect.
“Maybe somebody should have dropped me off a handbook on how I should have been behaving or how you behave when your child’s missing,” she recounted snapping at the police.
Former Toronto Police superintendent Tony Ellis, who has been involved in six similar murder investigations involving children, said police have to treat parents as suspects, even though hurt or angry feelings are often the result.
“The primary concern is to get the child back in the best possible condition as fast as possible, everything else is secondary,” he said Friday.
“You need to be, obviously, sensitive to the family and try to be nice and so on but at the end of the day it’s the child that’s the key focus.”
Now McDonald’s emotions and those of her partner James Goris – who glumly clutched a giant teddy bear as McDonald spoke – have run the gamut, she said.
“Disgust, sadness, anger – there’s a million. Every feeling that you can imagine, we’ve felt.”
Six weeks after Tori vanished, police charged Michael Rafferty, 28, with first-degree murder and abduction and Terri-Lynne McClintic, 18, with abduction and being an accessory.
McDonald said she had met McClintic and her mother Carol McClintic before when they were discussing breeding their dogs, but she didn’t trust them.
“They were just strange people,” she said. “I just didn’t feel comfortable there.”
McDonald and Goris suspected McClintic after seeing surveillance video of Tori and a woman with long, dark hair walking away from her school and again after a composite sketch was released, McDonald said.
Goris told police shortly after the video was released that McClintic had cut her hair and that the pair thought she looked like the woman in the video, she said.
At one point McDonald was confronted with the allegation that she looked like the woman in a composite sketch released by police – a suggestion she has called laughable.
McDonald also denied Friday that she had bought OxyContin, a drug she has admitted using in the past, from McClintic.
Unrelated to Tori’s case, police announced 38 charges against 14 people Friday as the result of a three-month investigation into OxyContin in Woodstock.
“During 2008 the Oxford Community Police Service began to notice a trend in which Oxycodone was quickly becoming the drug of choice of a large number of drug dependant persons in the City of Woodstock,” a news release said.
A judicial order has allowed McClintic to remain in the custody of the Oxford police to assist in the search for Tori’s remains, which is taking place about an hour outside Woodstock, in Fergus, Ont.
In a release late Friday, police asked to speak with anyone who may have seen a blue 2003 four-door Honda with black spray paint over portions of it in Woodstock or in Guelph.
Investigators said they believe that the vehicle, suspects and Tori may have been in and around the parking lot of a Home Depot in Guelph during the early evening of April 8.
Police have been keeping one or two officers and police cars outside the suspects’ homes, but on Friday several forensic identification vans and several more officers were outside both McClintic’s and Rafferty’s houses.
McClintic’s lawyer Jeanine LeRoy said Friday that her client has a message for Tori’s family.
“She wants them to know that she is doing everything in her power to assist the police in bringing Tori home,” LeRoy said outside court in Guelph, Ont., where she was appearing on unrelated matters.
“It’s important to her that they know that.”
McDonald scoffed when told of the message.
“I think that if she knew where our daughter was at this point then they wouldn’t be searching,” McDonald said.
“I honestly feel that she’s just enjoying some helicopter rides and some fresh air because she’s probably not going to be getting very much of that in the near future.”
But until her daughter’s remains are found, she can’t truly begin to deal with her heartbreak, McDonald said.
Despite McClintic’s co-operation, the search has lasted three days.
“She is doing her best to try to remember what she can and to provide that info to the police,” LeRoy said. “She did indicate that the weather changes and the foliage changes (since April 8) are making that tougher.”
LeRoy said neither she nor her client have discussed a deal with the Crown attorney in exchange for her co-operation.
“It was her idea (to help), not counsel’s,” LeRoy said of her client. “She was involved with police in assisting them in the search well before she even talked to a lawyer.”
Rodney Stafford spoke Wednesday and Thursday about how he is trying to cope with the devastating news of his daughter’s death, but took Friday to spend time with his son, Daryn.
The sweet, sensitive 11-year-old was Tori’s best friend, their parents say, and is understandably having a hard time.
After telling Daryn “that his sister has gone to heaven,” he went into the backyard and took out his aggression on a metal mop handle, breaking it, McDonald said. He told his parents on Tuesday night that jail wasn’t punishment enough for whoever was responsible for taking his sister away from him.
-With files from Michael Oliveira