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Victoria Stafford is shown in this undated family handout photo. (DAVE CHIDLEY)
Victoria Stafford is shown in this undated family handout photo. (DAVE CHIDLEY)

Jury selection in Tori Stafford trial begins Add to ...

Nearly three years have passed since the frantic search for a missing 8-year-old girl ended in murder charges and the discovery of her remains in a patch of Southwestern Ontario woodland.

Now, in downtown London, jury selection begins Monday in the trial of the second person accused in her killing.

A young woman is already serving life imprisonment in the death of Victoria (Tori) Stafford, and will be the key witness at the trial of her former partner, Michael Thomas Rafferty.

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A self-described contractor at the time of his arrest, Mr. Rafferty, 31, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, sexual assault and kidnapping.

The trial before Mr. Justice Thomas Heeney of Ontario Superior Court is expected to last at least two months, and much of the evidence is likely to be horrifying.

Heading the prosecution team is Woodstock Crown attorney Brian Crockett, while Mr. Rafferty’s defence is led by Toronto lawyer Dirk Derstine.

Tori vanished in Woodstock, Ont., on April 8, 2009, while heading home from school.

From almost the outset, closed-circuit camera footage that showed her being led away, hand-in-hand, by an unidentified woman stirred speculation the outcome would be grim.

Few, however, suspected just how bad it would be.

Tori’s disappearance, the massive police hunt for her and for her abductors, and her anguished parents’ pleas for the safe return of their daughter generated a tide of headlines and broadcasts.

There were sharp questions, too, about why the provincial Amber Alert public-notification system – signalling a suspected abduction, rather than just a disappearance – was not immediately deployed. Subsequently, police were granted greater leeway for sounding the alarm during the first, crucial hours after a child goes missing.

The next six weeks were studded with ominous milestones.

On April 9, police released a videotape showing the Grade 3 student leaving the school grounds with a woman in a white coat.

Tori’s parents said they had no clue who the woman was. Both took polygraph tests and both passed.

On April 17, Ontario Provincial Police took over the investigation from Oxford Community Police.

On April 28, a $50,000 reward was offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

But each day, hopes of finding Tori alive dwindled in the small town of Woodstock, population 35,000.

And they evaporated on May 20, when a local young couple were charged with kidnapping and murder: Mr. Rafferty and his girlfriend Terri-Lynne McClintic, then 18.

Ms. McClintic was initially charged with child abduction and of being an accessory to murder; 10 days later, her charges were upgraded to first-degree murder.

Yet there was still no sign of Tori, despite what appears to have been a genuine effort by Ms. McClintic to help police locate her body.

But on July 19 there was a breakthrough.

Acting on what he later said was a hunch based on Ms. McClintic’s description of the area, OPP Detective-Sergeant Jim Smyth – the same behavioural-specialist who seven months later coaxed a confession out of sex killer and former air force colonel Russell Williams – located Tori’s remains under rocks in thick brush north of Guelph.

Dental records swiftly established it was her, and the cause of death was multiple blows from a blunt instrument, a post-mortem showed. Prosecutors concluded she had been both sexually assaulted and killed at the spot where she was found.

The two accused remained in custody and nine months passed.

Then – although it could not be reported at the time – on April 30, 2010, Ms. McClintic entered a surprise plea of guilty.

She was handed the automatic penalty of life imprisonment, with little chance of parole for at least 25 years.

The publication ban was ordered at the request of lawyers for her co-accused, Mr. Rafferty.

But in December, 2010, the Supreme Court of Canada rejected an application to have the ban extended, and with that, portions of Ms. McClintic’s guilty plea could be revealed.

Among other things, it was disclosed that she had confessed to police that while high on Oxycontin, she had lured Tori into a car with the promise of meeting a puppy.

Ms. McClintic also admitted purchasing garbage bags and a hammer from a Home Depot outlet shortly before Tori was killed.

Fifteen months later, it will be Mr. Rafferty in the prisoner’s box when his trial finally gets under way on the 14th floor of the London courthouse, after weeks of pre-trial motions.

And what his ex-partner plans to say in her testimony remains entirely unclear.

Jury selection is likely to take up much of this week, with the Crown’s opening address anticipated next Monday.

After that, one of the first tasks of the jury will be a visit to the lonely spot in Arthur Township, southeast of Mount Forest, where Det.-Sgt. Smyth made his dreadful discovery.

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