Victoria Stafford’s father sat through the trial of his daughter’s killer, often listening to details about the horror the eight-year-old suffered in the last hours of her life, and at the end of each day he just needed to see her smile.
Each day after the trial was over Rodney Stafford and his family would drive out here to the cemetery and visit Tori’s grave. A stone angel is perched atop the headstone, which is surrounded by flowers and pinwheels in her favourite colour — purple. Etched into the stone is a picture of Tori’s smiling face as it was in the last photo taken of her, on school picture day, the day before she was murdered.
“Basically that’s all we did through the trial was come out at the end of each day just say, ‘Hey we’re this much further, we’re this close,'” Stafford says, standing at the foot of his daughter’s grave.
“It was definitely nice to come out and say, ‘We got all the guilty’s.’ That smile right there is worth it.”
Under the picture on the headstone is her name, Victoria, written as she printed her name. The first few letters are carefully formed, then by the r-i-a it looks like she became impatient. There’s a princess crown etched atop the heart-shaped stone and the words “Our Princess on Earth…Our Angel in Heaven.”
Stafford says he has rushed out to the cemetery, sometimes at 2 or 3 a.m.
“I wanted to see my girl,” he says.
Tori’s family has had to grieve in stages since she vanished on April 8, 2009. For six weeks they were plagued with anxiety, then two people were charged in her murder. The family then had to come to terms with the fact that Tori was dead, but still there was no body to bury.
Another two months passed and her remains were found wrapped in garbage bags and buried under a pile of rocks in a farmer’s field far from her Woodstock home.
The reality of life without Tori set in, then nine more months passed and Terri-Lynne McClintic pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, revealing the sickening details behind Tori’s rape and murder.
Another chunk of time went by and the grief was once again set in motion as the partial lifting of a publication ban meant some of the details of McClintic’s plea could be made public.
Tori’s family had to wait more than a year after that for Michael Rafferty’s trial and now it has finally come to an end. They sat through the trial for 10 weeks. They cried tears of relief after he was found guilty Friday of first-degree murder, sexual assault causing bodily harm and kidnapping. They gave their victim impact statements Tuesday and saw him sentenced to life in prison.
There are no more stages now except for the rest of their lives without Tori.
Her brother Daryn is growing up into a well-spoken young man, her cousins are reaching milestones and Victoria will forever be eight. She would have been 12 on July 15 this year, Stafford points out.
“There’s no reason why she shouldn’t be able to turn any age and not be able to celebrate it with the rest of us,” Stafford says after re-arranging a wreath of purple flowers next to Tori’s grave.
“But two people, two monsters, proven monsters, have taken that from us and from Victoria and now we get to celebrate Victoria’s birthdays out here with her.”
The story of what happened to Tori is all about good versus evil, Stafford says. Tori was the epitome of innocence.
But Stafford won’t let himself get overwhelmed by the darkness of it all, choosing instead to seek out the bit of blue sky. Amber Alert criteria were changed in the wake of Tori’s death, and Stafford is glad to see OxyContin — the drug of choice for McClintic and Rafferty — no longer produced, and he hopes more positive changes can come from this tragedy.
He wants to dedicate his life to helping children somehow, whether it’s working with kids or being an advocate, starting a memorial foundation in Tori’s name, lobbying for surveillance cameras at elementary schools or changes to the justice system. He’s not sure yet. But he knows it will help him get by.
Words like closure don’t mean too much, he says.
“Tori’s never coming home,” Stafford says. “That’s the realization that I’m coming to, but at the same time I can’t change what happened that day. All I can do is take what happened to Tori and use it as an example to try to make it better for the future.”
In the meantime, in the name of moving into the next stage, Stafford thinks he will scale back the daily visits to Tori’s grave. He will still come by a lot, just maybe not every day.
“We frequent this road quite a bit so I’ll be stopping in every chance I get,” Stafford says. “Sometimes I drive by and just blow a kiss.”