The curious case of a mother's mystery benefactor


From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

April 29, 2009 at 4:39 AM EDT

WOODSTOCK, ONT. Not 20 minutes from the little house where Tara McDonald has "my one o'clock," as she calls her standing daily appointment with the press, between 12 and 16 police officers are grimly sifting through garbage at the Oxford County landfill on the Salford Road.

They are looking for any trace of the little girl who vanished exactly three weeks ago today.

She is eight-year-old Victoria (Tori) Stafford, and she is Ms. McDonald's youngest child.

While the methodical search and an accompanying door-to-door canvass of this entire Southwestern Ontario town of about 35,000 respectively grind on, the young mother busies herself with the more bizarre aspects of a case that grows stranger by the minute.

In the most recent turn of events, in a disappearance where no ransom demand has ever been made, there is an anonymous alleged benefactor who allegedly has offered as much money as it takes to get Tori back and who apparently travels the globe always carrying a plastic baggie of his or her dead child's hair.

Ms. McDonald says she was whisked to meet this mystery benefactor, by limousine, at the Sheraton Hotel at Pearson airport after the person's flight made an unexpected stop in Toronto.

The benefactor is the second "mystery" person in the case, the first being the still officially unidentified woman who was the last to be seen with Tori; the two were captured on grainy surveillance video as they walked from her school on April 8.

The newest mystery person, whose name Ms. McDonald doesn't have and never sought, believes it "was fate that brought them to me, because they were supposed to be flying from one place directly to another place and for some reason they had to stop in Toronto and for some reason they turned on the television and saw what was going on."

According to Ms. McDonald, the benefactor had a child who was abducted "and there was a ransom that was asked for and they were told by police not to give it, so they didn't and their child ended up dead, and they don't want me to go through that." The benefactor didn't give her any details of the abduction, Ms. McDonald said, but "they had a little baggie of hair the same colour as my daughter's and that broke my heart and obviously, it was somebody genuine. I felt that. Like they weren't just making things up or trying to get into the news because they made it very clear that they wanted to remain anonymous."

The news of the alleged benefactor and the mysterious sum of money was announced by Ms. McDonald three days ago, but detailed first only to Cynthia Mulligan, a CITY-TV reporter.

The 30-year-old mother addressed some of her remarks to Ms. Mulligan yesterday, saying, "I know that people are speculating and thinking that we're crazy because, like I told you, you came in to discuss it with me, people are going to think that we're nuts, people are going to think we're absolutely crazy, and we woke up the next day and all looked at each other and thought, like, 'Did that really happen?' "

According to Ms. McDonald, a limo driver parked on a side street, sneaked through her neighbour's backyard out of sight of the waiting throng of reporters and arrived at her back door last Thursday, telling her there was someone who wanted to meet her.

Ms. McDonald didn't ask who it was, but asked for time to discuss it with her boyfriend, James Goris, her brother John and her best friend Sarah. Two hours later, the driver phoned back and two hours after that, the limo picked them up and took them to the hotel, stopping on the way at Tim Hortons.

Ms. McDonald explained that "obviously, I wasn't just going to jump in a limo with a stranger and just go somewhere," yet once at the hotel, she effectively did just that - leaving her boyfriend, brother and best friend in the lobby and going upstairs alone with the limo driver.

Her willingness may have been based in part on her hunch that the mystery benefactor was Sylvia Browne, she told the media yesterday.

"Who's Sylvia Browne?" a reporter asked.

"A psychic, for Montel Williams [host of a daytime talk show]," Ms. McDonald replied. "The world's most renowned psychic."

She said she had called Ms. Browne "a few days prior" and left a message that she would like to talk to her, and "that's what I honestly thought I was going to do" when she was approached by the limo driver. "Crazy, I know," she said, "I thought we were going to see Sylvia Browne ... and that's what I honestly thought I was going to do."

"Your daughter's been abducted," a reporter asked her yesterday. "A lot of people would say that's kind of weird, you get into a limo - something bad could have happened to you?"

"A lot of weird things have taken place," Ms. McDonald said. "A lot of weird messages, a lot of weird letters. It was no more any weird than anything else we have encountered so far."

There is apparently no firm plan as to how the money would be delivered into an abductor's hands. "When they bring my daughter back safely," Ms. McDonald said, "then whatever it is that they ask for is going to be deposited into a safe account for them."

A little later, she added, "I know it sounds crazy. However they want to do it. If they want to drop Tori off, if they want to wait until they have the phone number, like whatever - they're the ones who are obviously holding the cards right now, not us, so I mean, whatever they ask for, the money is there, if that's what they want."

She said she has passed the two phone numbers given her by the benefactor to the police, whose spokeswoman, Constable Laurie-Anne Maitland, said only that "police have the information Tara's been given." While she said "everything is taken as possible evidence," Constable Maitland said the focus of the now-massive police investigation remains "in locating Tori."

Last night, the Oxford Community Police Service issued a press release announcing its own $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible fot the little girl's abduction. Constable Maitland said the reward was unrelated to any money allegedly offered by the mystery benefactor.

Ms. McDonald told Ms. Mulligan in an interview aired last evening that she has revised her belief that a stranger took her daughter, and now agrees with friends who "feel somebody who we know has taken Tori and they have no idea, they were just being mildly vindictive, and it went so far out of control so fast they have no idea what to do now."

"Mildly vindictive," after a child has been gone for 21 days, seems a curiously mild way of framing things.