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Tori Stafford's first solo walk home ended in her death, jury hears

Victoria Stafford is shown in this undated family handout photo.

Handout/The Canadian Press/Handout/The Canadian Press

April 8, 2009, should have been a joyous day for eight-year-old Victoria (Tori) Stafford, the murder trial of a man accused of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and beating her to death was told Monday afternoon.

It was the first time the Grade 3 pupil had been allowed to walk home alone from her Woodstock school, and she'd planned to watch a movie with friends at her new home, wearing her mother's borrowed butterfly earrings.

Instead, Crown attorney Kevin Gowdey told the nine-woman, three-man jury weighing the fate of Michael Thomas Rafferty, Tori's day ended in almost unspeakable horror.

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Three months later, her remains were found 130 kilometres away from where she had been abducted, hidden under a pile of rocks and wrapped in green garbage bags.

Clad only in a T-shirt, still wearing the earrings, she was naked from the waist down, her small body grievously broken, with a lacerated liver, fractured ribs and "massive injuries" to her skull, inflicted by repeated blows from what the prosecutor said was a newly purchased hammer.

As Mr. Gowdey outlined some of the testimony the jurors can expect to hear and the pictures they will have to see, in a killing that shook Woodstock to its core, he repeatedly warned them that much of the material will be very disturbing.

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"This trial will travel down a long road," he said. "The evidence will often be hard to listen to."

The keenly anticipated trial before Mr. Justice Thomas Heeney of Superior Court is expected to last at least two months.

Last week, Mr. Rafferty, 31, formally entered not-guilty pleas to charges of first-degree murder, sexual assault causing bodily harm and kidnapping in Tori's death.

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His co-accused former girlfriend, Terri-Lynne McClintic, now 21, has already been convicted of first-degree murder in Tori's death and will be a crucial prosecution witness in the case against him, Mr. Gowdey said Monday.

Ms. McClintic, serving a life term, has provided conflicting accounts of what she did, but "she was an essential part of what happened," the jury was told.

As his trial began, Mr. Rafferty appeared unfazed by the proceedings.

He walked into court from the holding cells with a faint smile. A pale, pudgy figure dressed in a grey suit and striped tie, with short, gel-slicked hair and wire-rimmed spectacles, he appeared alert and relaxed as he chatted briefly with lead defence lawyer Dirk Derstine.

And although court protocol does not demand it, he politely stood as the jurors arrived and left, watching them intently.

The cavernous courtroom – specially constructed to accommodate a big motorcycle-gang murder trial in 2009 – was full.

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In the second row sat Tori's father, Rodney Stafford, together with his mother, brother and girlfriend. Each wore something purple, Tori's favourite colour.

Tori vanished on her way home from the Oliver Stephens Public School, a few minutes walk from the rented house she shared in Woodstock with her mother, Tara McDonald, and older brother, Daryn Stafford.

Ms. McDonald – who was at the courthouse Monday but not in the courtroom because she will be a witness – will be among those whose testimony will help the jurors piece together Tori's last hours, Mr. Gowdey said.

The prosecution outlined the broader case against Mr. Rafferty and Ms. McClintic, his girlfriend of a few months.

Tori was glimpsed on a grainy video being led away from Oliver Stephens by a woman now acknowledged to be Ms. McClintic.

Mr. Rafferty was close by, in his Honda Civic, spotted at least three times in images from surveillance cameras.

With Tori a captive, the party headed for Guelph, where Mr. Rafferty obtained Percocet painkillers from a friend, took cash from an ATM and where Ms. McClintic bought the hammer and garbage bags at a Home Depot outlet, the prosecutor said.

From there the trio headed north up Hwy. 6, until they almost reached Mount Forest – about two kilometres from the lonely spot where Tori's sexual assault and murder are alleged to have occurred.

DNA evidence – linked to both Tori and Mr. Rafferty – will be central to the prosecution's case, the jury heard, as will be Mr. Rafferty's cellphone records that evening.

"Please listen to the DNA evidence, it will tell you a lot," Mr. Gowdey said.

He did not try to describe the killing itself. But he alluded to numerous pieces of incriminating Crown evidence.

* A search of Mr. Rafferty's home turned up a "missing" poster of Tori.

* Ms. McClintic had a script of what she was to say to police if they questioned her in the case.

* After the surveillance video showing Ms. McClintic leading Tori away was aired, the prosecutor said, she bought a bottle of hair dye, the receipt for which was found in Mr. Rafferty's house.

After police questioned him, Mr. Rafferty tried to get rid of his car, Mr. Gowdey said, and removed its back seat, which has never been recovered. He also tried to switch cellphones.

The jury will hear of the huge police hunt for Tori, which at its peak encompassed close to 900 officers, and of how her body was finally located.

Mr. Gowdey linked Mr. Rafferty to the locales where the abduction and killing allegedly happened: he had lived and worked in both Guelph and Mount Forest. He also had family in the area.

Outside court Monday afternoon, Mr. Derstine, said the picture painted by the Crown was incomplete.

"It will be interesting to see if the evidence as outlined today will actually be the evidence we hear," he said.

"The case is shocking and horrifying, and it will be easy to rush to judgment and unfairly judge someone who was in close proximity."

Tori's father, Mr. Stafford, described his feelings as "all over the place" and said he'd been waiting three years for this moment to arrive.

"Soon enough, we will see justice."

His mother, Doreen Graichen, also expressed relief that the case would finally be resolved "My head's just in a whirl right now," she said, a butterfly pendant similar to the earrings her granddaughter wore the day she disappeared, around her neck. "I'm glad the day is finally here," she said.

Asked if they are prepared for what lies ahead, both Mr. Stafford and Ms. Graichen said the events of that awful day had long been running through their minds.

"Nothing can be worse than what I have imagined," Ms. Graichen said.

Selected from a pool of nearly 450 people, the jury had already been advised by Judge Heeney the trial will be arduous. And because of its demands, the jurors will receive slightly more than the usual stipend.

Jurors in Ontario are normally paid $40 a day once a trial passes the 10-day mark, and $100 a day if it goes past 50 days.

But in this instance, Judge Heeney instructed that they be paid $40 a day from the outset, and $100 a day once the trial reaches 25 days.

Among their tasks will be a trip to the wooded spot where Tori's remains were found by an Ontario Provincial Police detective in July, 2009.

Tori's disappearance and the huge police hunt for her stirred a storm of speculation as to who was responsible.

Almost every day her anguished parents issued pleas for the safe return of their daughter, and the story drew enormous coverage.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of defence lawyer Dirk Derstine. This online version has been corrected.

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At The Globe and Mail since 1982, in assorted manifestations, chiefly crime reporter, foreign correspondent and member of the Editorial Board, Tim is now retired. More

Washington correspondent

Adrian Morrow covers U.S. politics from Washington, D.C. Previously he was The Globe's Ontario politics reporter. He's covered news, crime and sports for The Globe since 2010. He won the National Newspaper Award for politics reporting in 2016. More

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