A six-day search for a little autistic boy came to a tragic end Thursday, crushing all hope that somehow 6-year-old Maddox Ritch would be found safe after going missing from a Gastonia park.
Around 1 p.m., a team of 15 searchers made up of law enforcement officers and firefighters found the boy partially submerged in about 3 feet of water in Long Creek off Old Dallas Highway. He was found a little more than a mile from Rankin Lake Park, where he had gone missing Saturday.
"I'm heartbroken," said Gastonia Police Chief Robert Helton, fighting back tears. "Our community's heartbroken, our searchers, our investigators.
"Maddox Ritch, a beautiful young man, blond hair, blue eyes, out walking this past Saturday with his dad. Walking around the lake, looking at turtles, doing the things a young man would do. This is not the end that we hoped for."
Search crews had checked the same area as recently as Tuesday. Investigators found him in a location accessible by walking a path underneath U.S. 321, part of a future greenway that'll connect Rankin Lake Park to downtown Gastonia.
His father, Ian Ritch, reported that the boy ran ahead of him and vanished in broad daylight. Maddox did not speak because of his autism, adding an obstacle for those searching to find him.
His disappearance left investigators with several questions, many of which remained unanswered hours after the boy's body was found.
"Where did he enter, how did he get there, what was the manner of death, what was the cause of death, was there any crime that was committed or are we simply looking at an accident?" FBI Special Agent Jason Kaplan said. "Those are very difficult questions to answer, but they are questions that we will answer."
A scheduled autopsy will determine the cause of Maddox's death, as well as whether it was a result of foul play. The autopsy also will make a definitive determination of his identity, although investigators say there was little doubt that it was Maddox who was found.
Helton said he didn't know whether there were signs of trauma on the boy's body.
Maddox was last seen wearing an orange T-shirt with the words "I'm the man" emblazoned on the front, black shorts and closed-toe sandals. Helton declined to say what he was wearing when officials located his body.
Kaplan said it was "amazing" that searchers found Maddox, in an area previously searched by teams on foot, with ATVs and with drones.
"It was extremely difficult to see him, even when we were standing right next to him," he said.
Officials kept searching different areas under the belief Maddox might be moving around.
"You would not believe the number of times we've been over and over the same areas," Gastonia Fire Chief Phil Welch said. "We've been moving along the presumption he could've moved around. If we searched this area he could've moved around in the night or something so we sent new teams in."
Earlier Thursday, the city sent out a reverse 911 robocall to 32,146 landlines and cellphone numbers in an effort to find people who were in the park the day Maddox went missing, but had not yet come forward to police.
The FBI still wants people to call 704-869-1075 if they were at Rankin Lake Park on Saturday, emphasizing this remains an active investigation. Rankin Lake Park remains closed until further notice.
"There has been a lot of information and speculation about the family of Maddox and about other individuals. But the truth is we need to know as much as we can about the movement," Kaplan said. "We do not move forward based just on what one person or another person says happened. There's a lot of information indicating Maddox was where the family indicated he was and that his movements were what they indicated."
FBI agents and Gastonia Police officers notified Maddox's parents, Ian and Carrie Ritch, within an hour after the search team found the child.
A chaplain is assisting officers upset with what they saw, and about the unfortunate end result of the search.
"There is no sense of accomplishment here today," Welch said. "There's grieving."
You can reach Adam Lawson at 704-869-1842 or on Twitter @GazetteLawson.