In a lengthy Facebook post, Ritch said, in part: “Today i found out im not a dad anymore. I had big plans with my son. I wanted us to go fishing play ball go camping. I wanted to be his heroe [sic]. I wanted him to say i was more than superman or batman to him. I wanted people to ask him who his heroe is and him say my daddy.
“Now im no heroe i couldnt save him or protect him at all. I would give anything to go back and save him. While a lot of people dont believe anything i have said in the past believe this. From this moment on for the rest of my life i will live with the guilt of not being there to save my son. The most important person in my life.”
The body of Maddox Ritch was found on Thursday after a five-day search. Maddox, who had 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 a nearby lake.
His remains were found in about two or three feet of water in Long Creek, just one mile east of Gastonia’s Rankin Lake Park — where he had last been seen. 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.
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.”
In his post, Ritch went on to thank those who helped in the search for his son.
“I want to say thank u from the bottom of my heart to everyone who took part in searching for my sweet lil buddy,” he wrote. “I truly appreciate everything everyone did to find him. And to everyone in the community that were hoping and praying and just took one second of their time to think about Maddox i thank yall too.
“I loved that lil boy he was my best lil buddy. Maddox was my only child and he will be the only one i will ever have. I wasnt so worried about him when all this started on sat because i expected to find him right off over time i got more and more scared and worried. Once sunday morning came thats when it starte[d] me thinking i had something to worry about.”
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.
“When everyone else gets to go back to their normal lives remember that i will never be the same man again,” his statement continued. “I will now and forever be a broken man until i take my last breath. Ive never been a very spritual man before but [now] i want to be just so when i die my lil boy will be the first person i see when i get into heaven. I cant wait to see his lil smiling face again.”
He ended his statement with a plea to other parents.
“Just please hug ur children tighter and please dont make my mistake and let them get too far away from u,” he wrote. “Do everything u can with ur children because i wont get the chance to do anything with mine.
“Now to Maddox i just want to say i love u lil buddy. Please be waiting for me when my time comes because i promise im gonna do everything i can to be with u rooster!!!!!”
The Mecklenberg County Medical Examiner’s office tells PEOPLE the cause of death has yet to be determined.
FBI agent Jason Kaplan said Thursday it is “too early” to say whether foul play is suspected and an investigation is ongoing.