WOODSTOCK, Ont. — Shocking details about the death of Victoria Stafford and the disturbing reverence paid to the Grade 3 student by the woman who pleaded guilty to her murder were revealed Thursday as a controversial publication ban was lifted.
Terri-Lynne McClintic pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the girl’s death more than seven months ago, it can now be reported.
The plea, the haunting details of Tori’s disappearance and the painful victim impact statements delivered by Tori’s family had been under a much-publicized, sweeping publication ban since April.
The Supreme Court of Canada declined Thursday to hear an appeal of a decision to lift the ban, and the heartbreaking story of how the eight-year-old girl went missing outside her Woodstock, Ont., school can now be told.
Some details, however, remain under a publication ban, in order to preserve the constitutional rights of Michael Rafferty, 30, who was charged with first-degree murder and kidnapping alongside McClintic.
“Some of the information contained in the agreed statement of facts filed on the sentencing is sensational, inflammatory, and evokes a visceral response,” Judge Dougald McDermid said in reasons for his publication ban.
“If all the facts to which Ms. McClintic pleaded are published, there is a real and substantial risk that the expected widespread publicity… will adversely affect his right to a fair trial before an impartial jury.”
What happened to Tori between when McClintic bought a hammer and garbage bags at a Home Depot in Guelph, Ont., and when Tori died of multiple blunt force impacts can not be published until Rafferty’s trial is over.
His trial is not expected to get underway until 2012.
“He intends to plead not guilty and to vigorously contest all the charges against him,” his lawyer Dirk Derstine said Thursday.
After McClintic pleaded guilty April 30 and court heard victim impact statements from Tori’s family — during which time her lawyer brought her a bucket as she was clutching her stomach, appearing to be in some distress — McClintic read a statement of her own.
“I didn’t wake up that morning thinking I would take a child,” McClintic said.
“I can’t explain my thought process that day . . . Every day I ask myself, ‘Why? Why did I tell myself that everything would be OK?’ ”
McClintic said she was “dealt pretty low cards” in life and had been dealing with issues and problems she didn’t specify, and that she resorted to drugs.
Clad in a black pantsuit and with her hair in a bun, McClintic read her statement in a meek, but hurried manner in front of the courtroom packed with Tori’s family, McClintic’s family, police officers and dozens of reporters.
McClintic’s words took on a bizarre and sinister turn as she talked about what an impression Tori made on her and the bond they formed.
“I am honoured to have been able to spend even a brief amount of time with such an amazing person, and it pains me to think about how many people won’t get to see what a beautiful and brilliant woman I just know she would have grown up to be,” McClintic said.
“Tori will never leave my heart. She’ll hold my heart in her hands until the day I die.”
It appears that a horrible confluence of events led McClintic to Tori as her victim, and the innocent child’s only mistake was trusting that the woman just wanted to show her a puppy.
Victoria went missing on April 8, 2009 and her remains would not be found for more than three months.
Tori and her then 10-year-old brother Daryn were living with their maternal grandmother at the time, but Tori was to stay at her mom Tara McDonald’s new house close to their school on the night of April 8.
Daryn always walked Tori home that school year to their grandmother’s house, but that day Tori was to make the short trip to her mother’s house by herself.
She lined up with her classmates for dismissal at the end of the school day, but ran back inside because she forgot her butterfly earrings. Those earrings would later be used to help identify her badly decomposed remains.
Meanwhile, McClintic had spent the day picking up food stamps at a church, buying some groceries, picking up some OxyContin — a prescription drug that is widely abused in Woodstock — and submitting her resume at an employment centre. She also tried to check her MSN account on the computer there but forgot her password.
Later that day, as McClintic approached Oliver Stephens Public School, Tori happened to be the first child she saw.
Tori’s brother Daryn, now 12, is suffering enormous guilt for not walking his sister home, their father Rodney Stafford said in a victim impact statement. In his statement to the court, read by his father, Daryn said Tori was the most important part of his world.
“She was the closest person to me. Me and Tori could barely be apart for a weekend, let alone a lifetime,” he wrote.
“Knowing that I’ll never get the chance to see her again makes me sad.”
McClintic told Tori she had a shih tzu named Precious, and Tori replied that she too had a shih tzu and agreed she would like to see McClintic’s dog.
The trusting, happy little girl told McClintic that her name was Victoria, but everyone called her Tori. The two began to walk away from the school, as now infamously seen on grainy surveillance video, and with that Tori vanished.
Soon people across the country would know Victoria’s name, and that she liked to go by Tori, because pictures of her smiling face accompanied news stories about the frantic search.
After Tori’s disappearance many people, including Tori’s family, pored over that surveillance video, trying to guess at the identity of the woman. Members of the community suggested it was Tori’s own mother, even though she did not fit the height and weight description.
Police were almost immediately flooded with tips about the identity of the mystery woman, and a few of those early tips suggested it was McClintic, who was 18 years old at the time.
Investigators soon discovered McClintic was wanted on an outstanding warrant for a minor offence, so they arrested her on April 12 — the same day thousands of community members attended a candlelight vigil praying for Tori’s safe return.
In interviews with police McClintic initially denied involvement, but eventually admitted responsibility and provided them with several hours of statements.
She was charged on May 19, 2009 with kidnapping and accessory to murder, which was later upgraded to first-degree murder. The Crown dropped the kidnapping charge, which is not unusual when someone pleads guilty to a more serious charge such as first-degree murder.
Before McClintic was sentenced on April 30 Tori’s family members were given the opportunity to make victim impact statements.
Victoria’s father, Rodney Stafford, sat in the witness box, faced McClintic and said he feels a hatred toward her like he has never felt before. Then he uttered astonishing words coming from the father of an eight-year-old murder victim.
“As hard as this is for me, I do have to say thank you to you… it has been said that without you we may never have found Victoria,” he said. After her arrest McClintic tried to help the police locate Tori’s remains.
“Maybe one day I can learn to forgive you, but for now excuse me if I don’t,” Stafford said as McClintic buried her head in her hands.
“My little girl is gone.”
Tori’s mother, Tara McDonald, said she is plagued by nightmares because a piece of her will be missing forever.
“I miss her so much that many times if I didn’t have my son I probably would have taken my own life,” McDonald said.
McDonald’s mother, Linda Winters, and boyfriend, James Goris, also wrote statements and Rodney Stafford’s mother Doreen Graichen and his sister Randi Millen did videotaped statements, which were played in court.
Though McClintic may one day walk free, Tori’s family will never be released from their horror, Graichen said in her statement.
“We’ve all become imprisoned for life,” she said. “Our sentence will never end.”
A life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years is automatic for a first-degree murder conviction. McClintic may apply for the so-called faint hope clause after 15 years.