Brooke Sheppard told WBTV that she spotted Maddox Ritch as she took a walk with her mother and daughter
Brooke Sheppard told WBTV that she stopped by Gastonia’s Rankin Lake Park on Sep. 22 for a church picnic. She claimed that she spotted Ritch, who had autism and limited verbal skills, as she took a walk with her mother and daughter.
Sheppard said, “I can remember [my mother] looking over and asking him, ‘Hey buddy, are you tired?’ because he had just been skipping, jogging, being a kid.”
Sheppard recalled that when Ritch did not reply and ran away, she assumed that he was returning to his guardian. But when she heard that a boy was missing, she told WBTV, “I knew immediately that was him because I can remember seeing him … I can just remember it to a T.”
“I’ve worked there almost three years and we see everybody come in and out of that park pretty much,” Foxx said. “I didn’t see that kid one time.”
Ritch was walking with his father and another adult at the park when he ran away. His father Ian Ritch told PEOPLE on Tuesday, “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.”
He continued, “I tried to find him. I don’t know where he went. Usually when he takes off running he’ll slow down and stop for me to catch up with him. This time he never stopped.”
At least two dozen law enforcement agencies, including FBI officials in Charlotte, searched for Maddox before his body was found in about two or three feet of water in Long Creek on Thursday. Gastonia police confirmed the news to PEOPLE in a statement.
“I’m sure everybody else feels the same way,” Sheppard said to WBTV. “They felt like they knew him because they were searching so hard for him, and we all had high hopes of they’re going to find him, they’re going to find him.”
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Maddox’s obituary said, “Maddox was a sweet and loving little boy who was full of laughter. He loved Paw Patrol, his Teddy, playing with his bouncy balls, but above all he loved his mom and dad the most.”
A visitation will be held on Thursday, and a funeral will be held on Friday.
FBI agent Jason Kaplan said at a press conference that Maddox’s body was “camouflaged.” He explained, “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.”
“Now im no heroe [sic] i couldnt save him or protect him at all,” his father wrote on Facebook. “I would give anything to go back and save him. … 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 Mecklenberg County Medical Examiner’s office told PEOPLE earlier this week that the cause of death had yet to be determined.
Maddox’s mother Carrie Ritch tearfully pleaded for his return at a press conference on Tuesday.
“I just want my baby home, please,” she said. “Whatever you can do. Maddox is my whole world, and my reason for living. He’s momma’s boy.”
She added, “Maddox loves the park. He loves bouncy balls and he loves his teddy bear. His smile is so contagious and his laughter so precious.”
Maddox is survived by his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, according to his obituary.