Tara McDonald hinted Thursday that police consider her a suspect in the now month-long disappearance of her eight-year-old daughter, Victoria (Tori) Stafford.
During what has become a fixture since the little girl vanished on her way home from school on April 8 - Ms. McDonald's almost daily news conference on the front stoop of her small house - the 30-year-old mother was asked if detectives from the Ontario Provincial Police-led investigation "have ever actually come out and said to you they consider you a suspect?"
"Not blatantly, no," Ms. McDonald replied. "Not flat out."
But literally in the next breath, she began to back-pedal from that statement.
"Ummm, like I mean, they've said they have to rule out from the inside out first, and that's all they've said. You know, like I mean like I said, if something was wrong, then I'm sure I wouldn't be standing here right now."
She has offered a similar explanation before when speaking of her polygraph test, never saying directly that she had passed, but rather that if she hadn't, she wouldn't be a free woman now.
Asked if she believes she is being treated more as a suspect than a victim, Ms. McDonald quickly replied, "Not by the police," but complained of her treatment on the Internet, in particular, on Facebook sites, some of them set up to help find Tori.
"It's ridiculous," she said. "It's absolutely ridiculous. And the point of the matter is, there's nobody to point a finger at, so point it at me or at my family, and I just think it's disgusting because there is absolutely no evidence pointing at me or any of my family members, at all."
But she said that despite the accusations made on Facebook, no one in this town of 35,000 about 130 kilometres southwest of Toronto has said anything cruel to her in person.
When out in public, she said, "People have said to me, 'You know people are looking at you,' and it doesn't faze me at all. Like some people have come up to us like acting like we're some kind of movie star, 'Omigod I can't believe that it's you!' - they want to hug us and everything.
"Like you know, if they're offering their hugs and their prayers and their positive thoughts, then [okay] but nobody's ever had the balls to be brave enough to come up and say anything negative. No, no, no people just hide behind their computers and do that, the ones that have absolutely no jam," she said.
She referred to the infamous mystery woman, captured in surveillance video walking with Tori from the school, and said, "The lady in the video, like I said, when the video first came out - I'm five-foot-nine, I weigh 175 pounds, there's absolutely no way [the woman is me]
"And there's absolutely no reason why I would have something done to my child, you know kidnap or other, and if I was going to have one child kidnapped, why not the other one?" Then, using the words "kidnap" and "protect" as though they were interchangeable, she added, "You know, why would I only protect Victoria and not Daryn [her 11-year-old son] It just doesn't make sense."
Ms. McDonald and her ex-husband, Rodney Stafford, appeared Thursday with Daryn. "We brought out some backup," Mr. Stafford said with a warm smile, while Ms. McDonald joked that their son "felt left out because he hasn't got to come to any press conferences."
Daryn said he wanted to show his new shirt - the three all wore T-shirts with a balloon painting done by Mr. Stafford over which a photograph of Tori has been superimposed.
Bright and articulate, Daryn was asked if his friends have been helpful. He said quietly that they're "being nice about this," expressed gratitude that the teachers and counsellors at the school are being so kind, but added that "there's always kids at school who are also being really rude about it [his sister's disappearance] And it's very upsetting."
During the 20-minute news conference, the bespectacled boy stood between his parents, seemingly comfortable as his mother in particular was peppered with questions. He grinned when she described how his little sister was usually pokey leaving the school, even if he was yakking at her to hurry; the mere mention of Tori's name seemed to bring him pleasure and make him happy.
At least twice Thursday, Ms. McDonald appeared to dodge pointed questions by deflecting attention elsewhere.
When being asked about her daughter's leave-taking from Oliver Stephens school that day, for instance - which of the doors she usually used; who were the adults approved to pick her up - she said, "Sometimes it surprises me because all the parents at the school know whose kids belong to who, so you, and you have to call ahead of time to the school if you're going to be sending somebody different to pick up your child.
"There's normally a teacher's aide, a principal, somebody's out front of the school almost every single day, even before this mishap," she said. "So normally, if a child was leaving with somebody that didn't belong to them, then some sort of alarm should have been raised."
In less than a minute, however, Ms. McDonald was backtracking from that suggestion: "I'm not saying that they're [school officials]responsible for not seeing where Victoria went, but I'm saying there's a lot of parents, like when you go into the school, I know which, not all the kids, but in Tori and Daryn's grades, which kids belong to which parents."
And it was shortly after she was asked, what with police seizing her family's computers weeks ago and officers appearing to be watching her house, if detectives had told her she was a suspect that Ms. McDonald cheerfully volunteered the fact that her brother John Jacklin's house in Calgary was searched on Wednesday.
"I don't even know if I should even be mentioning it," she said, "but they searched his house and his mum's house out there Thursday, so they're being as thorough as they absolutely can be. Like he's way out in the middle of absolutely nowhere in Calgary, and the police went out and searched his house and his mum's house and everything out there, so I mean, they're doing everything they can."
Mr. Jacklin had been in Woodstock, at his sister's side, until recently.
She said she didn't think the search came late in the investigation. "Well, he was here you know, so I mean, so if you think about it, like his mum was my dad's first wife, so she would have nothing to do with it, but the fact that they're out there and checking, we appreciate the fact that they're checking into everything."
She said Mr. Jacklin was happy about the search. "He said you know that means they're being thorough. He wasn't offended whatsoever."