Body Believed to Be of Missing Boy, 6, with Autism Found Partially Submerged in N.C. Creek
Federal officials say they believe remains found in a Gastonia highway are that of 6-year-old Maddox Ritch
The days-long search for a missing 6-year-old boy in North Carolina ended in tragedy on Thursday when officials found what they believed to be the child’s body in a creek just one mile from the park where he disappeared.
Gastonia police confirmed the news to PEOPLE in a statement, revealing that a body believed to be that of the 6-year-old was found around 1 p.m. near a highway in Gastonia. The body will be identified by the medical examiner’s office. Maddox’s parents, Ian and Carrie Ritch, have been notified of the discovery.
“The chief and I saw Maddox and it is absolutely amazing that he was found,” FBI agent Jason Kaplan said during a Thursday press conference of “how camouflaged” the body was. “It was extremely difficult to see him even when we were standing right next to him. He was in the creek, in water. Partially underwater.”
Kaplan said it is “too early” to say whether foul play is suspected. Although a medical examiner will confirm the identity of the remains, Kaplan said it is “reasonable to say that it’s [Maddox].
Maddox, who has autism and limited verbal skills, was walking with his father and another adult at the park around 1:30 p.m. local time on Saturday when he took off running. More than a dozen agencies participated in the search, even enlisting the help of divers to search the lake.
The remains were found in about two or three feet of water in Long Creek, just one mile east of Gastonia’s Rankin Lake Park. Gastonia fire chief Phillip Welch said Maddox could not have been swept into the creek from the lake due to a screen in the discharge area.
Welch added that it is possible Maddox walked under fencing around the park to get to the creek. It is unclear how he got into the creek.
“You would not believe the number of times we’d been over and over the same areas,” Welch said, noting that the area Maddox was found had been searched “numerous” timed. “We were searching on the presumption that he could have moved around. We had new eyes every day in the same areas.”
Maddox’ s father Ian Ritch previously told PEOPLE that he and his friend were walking with Maddox near the lake that afternoon when the playful boy took off running behind a jogger. It was common for Maddox to run around, so Ian allowed the boy to jog ahead for fun, he said. But when Maddox began running faster, Ian said he took off after him and wasn’t able to catch up with his son before losing sight of the boy.
He told PEOPLE that he began to lose hope that search teams would find the boy okay.
“I was thinking he was lost in the woods, now I’m not so sure,” Ian told PEOPLE on Tuesday. “They’ve been looking for days and haven’t found anything. I’m starting to worry. It’s been too long. They had so many search and rescue [teams] that they should have found him by now.”
Kaplan said the investigation is not over and authorities are looking to speak with everyone who was at the park that day. They are working to determine how Maddox got into the lake and how he died.
Authorities offered a $10,000 reward for Maddox’s recovery. City officials confirmed to PEOPLE that both Carrie and Ian were cooperating with police in the investigation.
As the search continued, some questioned Ian’s account of the fateful day. But the grieving father said he did all he could to find his son.
“I was terrified. I didn’t know which direction he went, so I looked as hard as I could, I went different ways and everything,” Ian said in the day’s before the tragic discovery. “I tried to find him. People are making it out like I did something to him. I would never hurt my little boy. I love him to death and I just want him back.”
On Tuesday, Maddox’s mother, Carrie Ritch, spoke through tears at a press conference as she pleaded for help to find her son.
“I just want my baby home, please. Whatever you can do,” she said. “Maddox is my whole world, and my reason for living. He’s momma’s boy. I want my baby back in my arms.”