Community begins to question how police are handling the search. Why no amber alert? OPP take over the case.

Part 5

This series is a first person account, told by a parent who has lived through the fear and pain that rocked Woodstock when an eight year old girl was abducted on her way home from school and subsequently murdered.  Elizabeth  Maloney takes us through each step of the ordeal and starts with: A girl the same age as my daughter – is missing, she didn’t get home after school. The worry sets in. No longer can a parent feel reassured by the spotlight of safety once provided by broad daylight. Things are different now.  It can happen anytime, anywhere, and the most gut-wrenching of all; to anyone.

  By Elizabeth Maloney

WOODSTCOK, Ontario May 6, 2012    The presentation of evidence in the trial is over.  Lawyers for each side in the murder trial of eight year old Tori Stafford prepare to make their submissions to a jury after which a judge will charge that jury and they will decide if there is any guilt.

The decision on the part of the defence lawyer to call just the one witness, did manage to raise some doubt as to just how young Tori Stafford came to walk out of her school with someone that was not her Mother.

The first degree murder trial of Michael Rafferty, boyfriend of Terri-Lynne McClintic who had already pled guilty of murdering the child, had been moved to London, Ontario.  McClintic had already plead guilty to the murder of Tori Stafford and was serving a life sentence.   The prosecution had made their case against Rafferty – his defence counsel said Rafferty will not testify and that they will call just the one witness.

The missing child case was still in the hands of the local police - the Provincial Police had not yet been called in. The community was not happy.

Throughout the duration of Tori’s disappearance, many questions had been raised. Why was Tori taken? Who was the woman in the video? Was she involved? Did the parents have something to do with her abduction? The list goes on. But no one question caused as much controversy, contention and anger than why didn’t the Oxford Community Police Services (OCPS) issue an Amber Alert?

Welcome to Woodstock, the “Friendly City”. A typical quiet community of 40,000 and the epicentre of a county servicing approximately 150,000 people. Woodstock at one time had its own police force. But several years back the county amalgamated the police force into one big happy Oxford Community Police Services. This spread 84 police officers over the county to service those 150,000 people.

Now I know what a lot of you might silently be thinking. Little backwards town, the police probably don’t get much experience with this type of situation. And you would be right- we don’t. But don’t mistake that for ineptness. They aren’t perfect, but neither is any other police force.

The imperfection of the OCPS was put under the spotlight when Tori was abducted. But can we really call it an imperfection? The OCPS consulted the Amber Alert guidelines shortly after Tori disappeared, but the case did not meet them. Quoting from the RCMP web page “Amber Alert is intended only for the most serious, time critical abduction cases.” With such a grave disclaimer, one would think those guidelines should be met fully and without question before raising the alarm. And this is what OCPS was looking at when the Alert was being considered.

Days passed and the residents of Woodstock became more and more agitated with the situation. Local blogs carried comments on the police force, some particularly aimed at the Chief of Police, Ron Fraser. Many weren’t specifically aware of the Amber Alert criteria and only saw black and white: missing child = issue Amber Alert. Some demanded he step down, some called him incompetent. Jokes were made about cops eating donuts instead of doing their job.

All the community had were pictures of an innocent child - not a single solid lead. She was just gone.

Realizing they were being demonized in the public eye for their course of action, OCPS put forth their spokesperson, Constable Laurie-Anne Maitland who handles public communications for the OCPS and often fields media enquiries. Defending the collective efforts of the OCPS she spoke to the media on April 13th advising the search “has not located something that would lead us to believe foul play may be a factor. “The news was not well-received and tensions grew.

But OCPS wasn’t the only game in town. On the day Const. Maitland, of the OCPS spoke and five days into Tori’s disappearance, a unit of the Ontario Provincial Police joined the case. It was given the special task of compiling a profile of Tori’s abductor(s). This single action almost confirmed the legitimacy of questioning OCPS’ actions and undermined their place in the case in one swoop. The OPP came in to “save the day”, and OCPS was left with egg on its face.

Const. Maitland was dispatched once again offering a defense for the handling of the case. She emphasized that they did not have the criteria to issue the Amber Alert, but reiterated the case was being treated as an absolute priority. While the explanation may have been legit, the public wasn’t willing to buy it this late in the game. The reasoning was offered too late. Had this been stated in the beginning, it may have been ok. Their cards would have been on the table and we wouldn’t have had to spend so much time guessing. After all, how do you convince the public that a child is not in imminent danger when she has been missing for days?

A day after vehemently defending their actions, the police were announcing that many tips have been received but none have been compelling enough to move the investigation forward. Feeling stalemated, the community rallied once more around Tori. On April 15th, they assembled to release purple balloons skyward, carrying Tori’s picture. It was a small gesture, but it was also action, something we the community had been craving.

All the community knew was that Tori was seen with a woman in a white puffy coat that no one knew.

For many, permanent relief came a mere two days later, when the OPP announced they were taking the lead in the investigation. Inspector Bill Renton was placed in charge. His first order of business was to announce Tori’s case, moving forward, would be treated as abduction. Finally! Many of us were stunned, probably because we weren’t sure we were ever going to hear those words. We had been waiting so long for someone to admit one of our children had been snatched from the safety of our streets. It was vindication. We knew it and now so did everyone else!

With the simple acknowledgement of what we as a community already knew, hope was almost instantly renewed. But truth be told, that is the only thing the OPP were able to give us over OCPS. All future evidence and endeavours into the investigation were a joint effort of the two police forces, although the OPP retains most of the credit.

OCPS stained by a lack of communication early in the case doomed themselves to lack of recognition for the actual hard work they put into the case. Many of the police officers at OCPS worked long hours, in the search for Tori. Once the dust had settled, many of us in Woodstock were able to acknowledge the contributions they made to the case, and how it took a toll on many of them. We could finally appreciate what they did and how they contributed to the search for Tori.

With some resolution to the animosity for the handling of case out of the way, Woodstock was left with only one concern: Where was Tori? Now the focus was back where it belonged all along. On our missing little girl and why hadn’t she come home. The investigation was about to turn. Fears of what happened to Tori would begin to be played out in the media as theories. No longer would they be in our head, but in black and white and in a manner we could not hide from.

A multi part series on the murder of Tori Stafford

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

 

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