When Victoria (Tori) Stafford vanished more than three years ago, the crime focused attention not only on the blonde-haired, blue-eyed eight-year-old, but on the community of 37,000 she called home. While the nation took notice of Woodstock’s seedy underbelly, particularly the OxyContin addictions that beset so many in the community, its citizens rallied together to keep the case in the news and help police solve it.
And on a bright, warm Saturday the morning after Michael Rafferty was convicted of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and murdering Tori, it seemed a weight had been lifted from the town’s shoulders.
“For the past three years this community has been under a cloud,” said Mayor Pat Sobeski, standing outside Woodstock’s stately sandstone town hall on the main thoroughfare. “This morning, the sun is shining. There are still clouds in the sky, but our town will accept that as a sign that it’s time to begin the healing process … The community is relieved to hear the verdict and to know the trial is finally over.”
Tori’s disappearance changed Woodstock, a largely working-class community 140 kilometres south-west of Toronto. Parents keep a more watchful eye on their children, are more intent on picking them up from school and now keep their doors locked.
“I’m very over-protective now – I’m scared to let her out of my sight,” said Jennifer West as she held her nine-year-old daughter close.
When she first heard news of the abduction that day – April 8, 2009 – she initially worried it was her own child in danger. And in the weeks that followed, she cried for Tori and took steps to ensure no stranger could lure away her own little girl, who on Saturday sported a purple ribbon.
That colour, Tori's favourite, is everywhere around town, from the dresses in a women's clothing store on the high street to cloth bows tied around the trunks of trees in front yards, and it symbolizes the extent to which Woodstonians, as locals call themselves, have pulled together.
In the early days, when police thought Tori might still be alive, citizens organized constant vigils and lit candles in their windows to appeal for her safe return. And after it became apparent she had been killed, they turned out in droves to memorials and built shrines of purple flowers and balloons.
Locals also gave police thousands of tips, desperate to think of anything that would lead investigators to Tori and her killers. Police worked non-stop from the time she was reported missing, putting in 24-hour shifts at times in one of the largest police investigations the country has ever seen. By the end of it, more than 1,000 officers were involved, conducting surveillance, using wiretaps and deploying undercover investigators.
They ran down every last lead, even when there was little to go on, and it was this diligence that eventually paid off: Tori's mother, Tara McDonald, told them four days after the girl's disappearance that the woman seen on surveillance video leading Tori away looked like an acquaintance of hers, Terri-Lynne McClintic. The tip was just one of many, but police wasted no time acting on it: they arrested Ms. McClintic on an unrelated warrant and questioned her over the ensuing weeks.
Ultimately, Ms. McClintic confessed and also pointed police to her boyfriend, Mr. Rafferty. Both have been convicted.
The investigation also galvanized officers to crack down on the town's drug culture, which was laid bare. Both killers were OxyContin addicts, as was Ms. McDonald, who bought the pills from Ms. McClintic's mother.
Chief Rodney Freeman, who was promoted to lead the Woodstock Police Service the very day Tori’s body was recovered in July, 2009, said Saturday that every community across the country has social problems. But nonetheless, in the past three years, his force has tackled Woodstock's, offering help to addicts and cracking down on the supply.
“We are not going to win the war on drugs. But our effort has been to disrupt and displace the drug culture within our city to the very best extent we can,” he said. “The OxyContin thread did play a role in this investigation and that just hardens our resolve to continue to do more.”
All over town, the day after the verdict felt like any other lazy Saturday: crowds browsed a market set up in the parking lot of a grocery store, children played in the front yards of sturdy red brick houses on the leafy side streets and young couples sat in the sunshine on the main street.
While locals acknowledged the effect Tori had on their lives, they made it clear the horrific events of April 8, 2009, are not the only thing that define the community.
“Woodstock is a very trusting place despite all this,” said Ann Ash. “I think people want to get on with the things that make it a great place.”
For his part, student James Roy, 22, happy to see the case end.
“We didn't fall apart,” he said of the town. “If there is anything good that came out of this, it's that the tragedy brings people together.”