It was the police version of cradle-to-grave care, professional and businesslike, but not without its own exquisite tenderness.
Ontario Provincial Police Detective-Sergeant Jim Smyth, as he then was, didn’t set out to find Victoria (Tori) Stafford’s body that July day in 2009.
As part of the OPP’s elite behavioural sciences unit, such searches usually would have been below his pay grade.
He had been called in on the case in the early days after the little girl’s disappearance, his main focus the interviewing of key “persons of interest,” including Terri-Lynne McClintic, who two years ago pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in Tori’s slaying, and her ex-boyfriend, Michael Rafferty, who is now on trial in Ontario Superior Court here.
It was Det.-Sgt. Smyth — he is Det.-Staff-Sergeant Smyth now, a recent promotion seeing him move to the criminal investigations branch — who led McClintic to her confession.
When in the first flush of that, she offered to help police try to find the little girl, he seized on it, knowing from hard experience that such offers often quickly vanish.
With her confession, incomplete as it was then, police knew Tori was dead, and their prime focus was to find her body.
So starting that very night and continuing for several days in mid-May of 2009, Det.-Sgt. Smyth, along with other officers, was with the young woman, in car and by air, as they tried to re-create the path she and Mr. Rafferty allegedly took on April 8, when McClintic had sidled up to Tori as she left school in Woodstock, and lured her away.
McClintic had drawn maps for them too, and even helped an OPP artist produce a “composite sketch,” usually reserved for people, of the house she said was just across the road from the little path she said they had travelled in the countryside north of Guelph, Ont.
Several times, Det.-Sgt. Smyth told Judge Thomas Heeney and the jurors Friday, “We thought we were close,” but each time McClintic was adamant that this or that wasn’t the site.
By May 24, Det.-Sgt. Smyth returned to his interrogator’s role, she was questioned again, and that time made a more detailed confession.
(In January this year and here, when she testified at her ex’s trial, McClintic changed that story: Instead of blaming Mr. Rafferty as the actual murderer, she said she was the one who killed Tori.)
But by July that year, though Det.-Sgt. Smyth had been seconded to the Tori task force for three months, he was involved in another investigation when he learned that as a result of a search warrant executed on Mr. Rafferty’s cellphone, records appeared to show the phone had been used near Mt. Forest on the very day Tori vanished.
The town was just a little north of the vast area of southwestern Ontario that police had already searched; McClintic had run out of landmarks she recognized, and that was where the northern boundary of the search was established.
Det.-Sgt. Smyth got the call on July 17.
On July 18, he was working in the Woodstock office, and drove back up to Orillia and OPP headquarters.
He was on his way back to Woodstock on the Sunday, July 19, when on an impulse, he decided to get off the 400 Highway at Highway 89, and drive across to Mt. Forest.
There was to be a task force meeting early that week but he wasn’t going to be able to make it, and he figured he’d take a tour of the area, get a sense of the landscape, so he could give his colleagues his assessment on “What is our best bet here” to start the new search.
He drove up a couple of roads, scoping out the area, then crossed over Highway 6 and north onto the Concession 6 side road.
“Ms. McClintic was very sure the location was off a big concession road,” he said.
He was heading north on Concession 6 when he saw a house on the left-hand side, at first unremarkable, “but as I went past it I realized it was on a significant angle to the road” — just as McClintic had drawn it on her maps.
He turned around, and came at it from the other direction now, and “I was frankly struck by the similarities” between the house in front of him and the one she had drawn: Both were bungalows, with columns and an awning over the entrance.
He went up a gravel laneway — an overgrown country track, really — across from the house, noticing as he went so many of the features McClintic had described. There was the broken-down fence, the culvert running underneath the path, the way the path rose.
At the top, Det.-Sgt. Smyth parked his vehicle.
“Once I stood up,” he said, “I could see a rock pile.”
This was another feature of the McClintic drawings — and the evergreens, and a stand of wind-blown trees which had been leafless when McClintic first saw them but which were now lush and green.
Prosecutor Michael Carnegie, who was leading Det.-Sgt. Smyth through his evidence, asked if he made any other observations beyond the visual.
“There was the slight odour of what I deemed to be decomposition.”
His heart must have been sinking like a stone now, but he kept walking, over to the evergreen trees. He parted one of the lowest branches. “I could see part of a garbage bag underneath the rocks,” he said. He didn’t know if it was a scrap, and reached out a finger to touch it. “And it was soft,” he said. “I knew, or I believed, we had found Victoria Stafford.”
As he paused in his testimony, a lean man who stood in the witness box, so did he then take a moment to collect his thoughts, there in the lovely countryside, amid wild flowers and bulrushes and purple salvia and tiny buttercups where a cheerful little blond of eight had ended up in green garbage bags.
Det.-Sgt. Smyth retraced his steps, reversed his car out the way he had come, and made the calls he had to make, bringing in the forensic officers, the pathologist, and others to stand guard that night over the crime scene and the little girl.
Det.-Sgt. Smyth left the scene at 9:25 p.m. He was back at 8:20 the next morning, and there when the little girl’s body was removed just after noon.
He was there for the post-mortem, done in Toronto that day. Tori Stafford’s identity was confirmed through dental records, the preliminary cause of death determined to be blunt-force trauma to the head.
Jim Smyth’s last act in the case, a final grace note, came on July 31, when he attended Tori Stafford’s funeral