Four days after search crews found a body in a creek in Gastonia, the Medical Examiner's Office identified the remains as six-year-old Maddox Ritch.
Ritch's body was found in a creek near Marietta Street and Old Dallas Highway in Gastonia on Thursday, September 27. Maddox disappeared on Saturday, September 22 when he got away from his father and another adult at Rankin Lake Park.
“We are deeply saddened to learn the body found by searchers last Thursday is confirmed to be Maddox Ritch,” Gastonia Police Chief Robert Helton said. “Hundreds of people searched tirelessly for this child and our work continues to answer every question we can about his tragic death.”
About 180 searchers came out to help find the missing boy Thursday, according to Gastonia Fire Chief Phil Welch. Like Helton, Welch said Thursday was a very sad day.
"There is no sense of accomplishment today," Welch said. "There's grieving."
On Sunday, the funeral plans for Maddox Ritch were made public. A visitation will be held Thursday, October 4 from 7-9 p.m. at Raymer-Kepner Funeral Home in Huntersville. A funeral will be held the next day at the same location before a private burial service.
Chapter one: 'Investigation is not over'
Maddox’s parents were notified immediately of the discovery by law enforcement. Formal identification of the body will be done by the medical examiner’s office, Gastonia Police said.
FBI Supervisor Jason Kaplan said it was too early in the investigation to know whether foul play factored into Maddox's disappearance.
"The investigation is not over," Kaplan said. "In law enforcement, we will not take anything for granted... a lot of people have lost sleep."
Kaplan added there were still many unanswered questions, and the public's help was needed to gather more information.
"We still want to hear from the others," Kaplan said. "Please call the tip line (704-869-1075)."
On Wednesday, Ian Ritch, the Maddox' father, took questions from reporters at the Greater Gaston Baptist Association in Gastonia. Ian said Maddox took off running in the opposite direction of him and his friend Saturday at Rankin Lake Park.
"He usually runs but will stop to give me a chance to pick him up," Ian said.
Ian said his son's disappearance left him sleepless for several days, and he hasn't eaten.
"I feel guilty for letting him get so far ahead of me," Ian said.
Investigators say they're still looking for witnesses as they wait for the autopsy results. Authorities hope they get a hold of joggers who were at the park Saturday, as well as a man who Chief Helton said may have been among the last to see Maddox Ritch.
"In a white pick-up truck," Chief Helton said. "I think it was a crew cab truck, had running boards loading a silver kayak out of the water. He had a camouflage hat on... So he was coming out of the water right around this time. We need to talk with him."
Chapter two: A community grieves
Sarah Shepherd, a mother of three children with special needs, followed the case closely; she's still stunned by the news.
"To hear and find out that this child has been found in this way, it's very heartbreaking," Shepherd said. "I just pray for the mom. I can't imagine what that mom is going through right now."
Earlier Thursday morning, Autism Charlotte's Valerie Iseah dropped off supplies for search teams.
"It hit me as a mom, initially," Iseah said. "When I heard the additional details that this child had autism, it was like the second shoe dropped when I heard that."