Woodstock in mourning

The unimaginable, crushing grief the parents of Victoria Stafford are experiencing is echoed in this small southwestern Ontario community, which banded together to pray the little girl would return home safely and is now looking for a way to move forward after news of her death.

Neighbors leave flowers at Victoria (Tori) Stafford’s house in Woodstock.

WOODSTOCK, Ont. — The unimaginable, crushing grief the parents of Victoria Stafford are experiencing is echoed in this small southwestern Ontario community, which banded together to pray the little girl would return home safely and is now looking for a way to move forward after news of her death.

The beautiful, blonde eight-year-old girl vanished after leaving school April 8 and court documents suggest police believe she was killed that same day. Michael Rafferty, 28, has been charged with first-degree murder and Terri-Lynne McClintic, 18, has been charged with being an accessory.

Both are charged with the abduction that police allege was caught on widely viewed surveillance video showing Tori walking with a woman they now allege is McClintic.

Police continued to look for Tori’s body Saturday, and despite McClintic’s assistance, the search dragged into its fourth day.

Officers fanned out to search rural areas around Fergus, Ont., about an hour outside Woodstock, with McClintic in tow. Though a police spokeswoman could not confirm McClintic’s whereabouts, her lawyer Jeanine LeRoy said police had planned to continue the search with her client Saturday.

Tori’s parents Tara McDonald and Rodney Stafford say they cannot begin to truly face their grief until their daughter’s little body is found. McDonald says she refuses to make funeral plans until that point.

And so the two, already weary from weeks of the media spotlight beating down on them — particularly McDonald, who was viewed as a suspect by police and the public — are in an emotional holding pattern, awaiting confirmation of the grim news.

Meanwhile the small community is deeply affected by the tragedy as well.

It has been all people have talked and thought about for the past six weeks, said Margaret Scott, 60. Everyone feels personally connected to Tori’s parents and relatives, even those who are complete strangers, she said.

“It was our family. It happened to us,” she said.

“We really feel a sense of loss and sadness and frustration and anger. Disappointment, hurt, you name it, compassion for the family and the loss of their baby girl.”

About 1,000 people attended a candlelight vigil for Tori soon after her disappearance and hundreds volunteered to search and hand out flyers. The posters featuring Tori’s beaming face were plastered as far as the eye could see all over town, on telephone poles, in the windows of stores and homes and even taped to the backs of some people’s jackets.

Save for a few forgotten flyers they have all been taken down.

“When I drove down the street I thought: ‘No one put anything to replace them?”’ said Marnie Polonio, 39, who has three children of her own.

She thinks there should also be a permanent memorial for Tori, a tribute to her life.

“We need to make sure it’s not just forgotten, that there’s something for Tori to be remembered by,” she said.

Susan Milton said a public funeral or memorial service for Tori will be a necessary step in the community’s healing.

“I think that’s a really important part, to actually help not only her family but certainly the public come together and recognize and support,” she said. “It’s going to be a long grieving process for a lot of people, I’m afraid.”

The whole community is in shock, Milton said, and looking for answers. Perhaps closure for the community won’t come until the conclusion of the court case, she said.

“We feel violated as a city. How could this happen?”

Scott questioned what kind of people were living in the town in which she has lived all her life.

“I was aware there was an undercurrent, a subculture, a dark side,” she said. “Some of it we don’t want to admit it’s part of our community, but this has just brought it to the forefront, I think.”

Police are asking homeowners in the area of the search to call police if they notice anything unusual or out of the ordinary on their properties. They are also appealing for tips from anyone who may have seen a blue 2003 four-door Honda with black spray paint over portions of it in Woodstock or in Guelph on April 8 — the day Tori went missing.

Investigators say they believe that the vehicle, along with the suspects and Tori may have been in and around the parking lot of a Home Depot in Guelph during the early evening that day.

Oxford Community Police Const. Laurie Anne Maitland said the car has a distinct paint job and investigators are hoping that people might remember seeing it on April 8. Investigators hope information about the car, which became part of the investigation after the arrests, can lead to Tori’s whereabouts.

“We’re absolutely hopeful that we’ll find her remains,” Maitland said.

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