WOODSTOCK, Ont. - A troubled southwestern Ontario community scarred by the gruesome murder of eight-year-old Victoria Stafford can finally begin to heal now that both of the girl's killers have been brought to justice, Woodstock officials said Saturday.
As news of Michael Rafferty's conviction rippled through the city of roughly 40,000, Mayor Pat Sobeski said Friday's verdict marked the first glimmer of hope for a community buried "under a cloud" of grief since Tori disappeared three years ago.
The jury's decision, delivered at the end of the first full day of deliberations, brought the "emotional rollercoaster that so many people experienced over the past 36 months" to a satisfying, if not exactly joyful, close, he said.
While the shadow of Tori's brutal killing may never be fully lifted, the little girl will remain an inspiration as the community grapples with rampant prescription drug abuse and other social issues brought to light during the investigation into her death, he said.
"We cannot ignore the challenges _ like many communities, we have issues with drugs, we have issues with domestic violence _ but we can seize the opportunities as the city moves forward and we can do so because of the inspiration of the innocence of Tori Stafford," he said.
After 10 weeks of harrowing testimony and often graphic evidence, a jury in nearby London found Rafferty, 31, guilty of first-degree murder, kidnapping and sexual assault causing bodily harm.
The Crown contended that Rafferty instructed his then-girlfriend Terri-Lynne McClintic to snatch the child outside her school on April 8, 2009 and drove them both to a secluded rural area some 100 kilometres away.
It was there, McClintic testified during the trial, that Rafferty raped Tori and she was killed, wrapped in garbage bags and buried under a pile of rocks.
McClintic, who was a star witness for the Crown in her former lover's trial, pleaded guilty two years ago to first-degree murder and is already serving a life sentence.
Now that Rafferty faces a similar fate _ his sentencing is set for Tuesday _ there is hope the community can move past what has been a particularly grim chapter in its history, Woodstock Police Chief Rod Freeman said Saturday.
"Our community is a good community, it's a strong community, it's a resilient community... it's a community of people who are going to bounce back from this horrific incident and... we're going to become a better community," he said.
In the days after Tori went missing, residents rallied around her family, plastering the city and even their own clothes with posters in an attempt to find her. Those bonds only grew tighter as the investigation took a tragic turn.
But the case that captured national attention also placed the city under intense scrutiny, exposing widespread addiction to OxyContin beneath its picturesque surface.
The prescription painkiller emerged as a link between Tori's killers and her mother, Tara McDonald, who admitted to buying the pills from McClintic's mother on two occasions.
McDonald's struggle with the heroin-like substance stirred speculation that drugs were the motive for her daughter's abduction, a theory that was eventually disproved.
Both McClintic and Rafferty also abused painkillers. On the day they kidnapped and killed Tori, McClintic shot up OxyContin and both she and Rafferty took Percocet pills, she testified.
Since then, police have cracked down on the city's drug culture, with "significant impact," Freeman said. But he recognized the problem isn't likely to fade completely.
Many who walked the streets of Woodstock Saturday said they felt a wave of relief that justice had finally been served. But they said it will take time to wash away the lingering anxiety and grief stirred by Tori's death.
"I'm very overprotective now, where I wasn't as bad before," said Jennifer West, whose nine-year-old daughter Abby once attended Tori's school.
"I guess eventually, I will (recover), but right now it's still too fresh. Even though it's been three years, it's still too fresh," she said.
"It's always something that has changed how we view our children, how we watch our kids and how we conduct our lives," said Kelly Jorgensen, whose youngest child was born just before Tori vanished.
But out of that shared suffering rose a stronger, tighter community _ one that will continue to watch over its own, she said.
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