GASTONIA, NC (WBTV) - Officials received confirmation on the identity of Maddox Ritch after a child’s body was discovered Thursday in Long Creek. The discovery came after a six-day search that focused on Rankin Lake Park in Gastonia.
The exact cause of death has not been determined as autopsy results are pending.
“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.”
The 6-year-old disappeared while he was at the park with his father and the father’s girlfriend on Saturday, September 22. On Thursday, the FBI confirmed the body, believed to be Maddox, was found around 1 p.m. off of Marietta Street near Old Dallas Highway.
“Currently, we have found what we believe is Maddox in Long Creek,” officials said in a press conference following the discovery.
The body was found near a bridge by the creek. While the location was within walking distance of the park, investigators said it was unlikely Maddox was swept from the lake into the creek because of a screen that blocks the area feeding into the creek.
At a press conference several hours after the body was found, officials said it was “absolutely amazing” that he was found.
“Even standing right next to him, he was almost completely invisible.”
Officials said the investigation is ongoing, and they repeated requests for anyone at the park on Saturday to call authorities. “We still want to hear from the people in the park that day."
Chief Welch also stressed that the place where Maddox was found had been searched many times previously and stated that foot patrol, drones and ATV’s had all been used over that area as recently as Tuesday.
One question many had was how the little boy could leave the park without anyone seeing him. There is a trail along Long Creek adjacent to the park that continues for more than a mile. It also goes underneath Highway 321 and goes through areas where no one could see someone walking.
The place where the body was found in Long Creek was right beside that trail. Authorities could be seen walking that trail back to Rankin Lake Park after the body was found. There is no official word yet if that is indeed the path the boy took.
A crew of 15 searchers uncovered the body along an area connected by a pathway under Highway 321 in a future greenway area. The body was found partially submerged underwater in an area with significant underbrush.
People close to the scene reacted emotionally when the news about the possible discovery of Maddox’s body was found. One neighbor described the area where the body was found.
“We are heartsick... we are just devastated,” one neighbor said.
More than two dozen agencies, including the FBI, assisted with the search on ground and in the water. Members of the FBI dive team searched Rankin Lake in the park where 6-year-old Maddox Ritch went missing Saturday.
The specialized dive team used “different equipment” than what was previously used during searches of the lake. A release from the Gastonia Police Department stated the lake was still being drained Thursday morning, which would make it impossible for large boats to be in the water.
Law enforcement agencies continue pleading with the public, asking anyone who was at the park Saturday to come forward.
Crews were searching anywhere they thought the little boy may have wandered off too, including inside drainage pipes. “We desperately need to hear from those in the park on Saturday,” FBI Charlotte tweeted, “704-869-1075.”
DAY 6 UPDATE:
The FBI’s underwater search and evidence team is searching the water at Rankin Lake Park in Gastonia in a desperate search to find Maddox. The equipment being used is different than sonar equipment used in previous days, Gastonia police say.
Crews are asking anyone in the park that day to call the tip line: 704-869-1075.
DAY 5 UPDATE:
The 911 call reporting Ritch missing Saturday was released Wednesday morning.
Ritch disappeared at Rankin Lake Park in Gastonia while with his father and another adult.
According to the 911 call, made by a park employee, Maddox was missing for approximately an hour before the employee made the call.
“We’ve got a missing kid. He’s been missing for the last 30-40 minutes. Hour maybe,” the caller said.
As the 911 operator asked for the name of the child, later identified as Maddox, the employee said he was unable to confirm the child’s name with the parents, who were out searching for the boy.
“We searched everywhere,” the caller stated.
The city of Gastonia tweeted information for a public candlelight vigil that will be held Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
Gastonia police released the 911 call Wednesday morning, where the park employee can be heard conversing with the operator about when and where the boy was reported missing.
Click here to listen to the call.
CBS News Correspondent David Begnaud spoke to Maddox’s father, Ian Ritch, who said Maddox outran him at the park. Ian said Maddox took off running after a jogger.
DAY 4 UPDATE:
For the second night in a row, community members came together to pray for a little boy who has gone missing in Gaston County.
Gastonia’s Rankin Lake Park will remained closed to the public until further notice. Search crews will be on-site overnight.
Investigators say they have followed 150+ leads, conducted hundreds of interviews and searched thousands of acres since Maddox went missing Saturday.
The FBI is offering a $10,000 reward for any information that leads to the location of Maddox.
Gastonia Police have provided a missing child poster with a new tip line number in the search for missing 6-year-old Maddox Ritch, who disappeared Saturday at Rankin Lake Park in Gastonia. The new tip line number is 704-869-1075.
“The most impactful way the public can help us right now is to call us if you were at the park on Saturday," said Gastonia Police Chief Robert Helton. "We need to talk to every single person who was there, you may know something that could help us.”
Maddox’s mother spoke publicly for the first time Tuesday, on day four of the search for the little boy. “Maddox is my whole world and my reason for living," Carrie Ritch said. "His smile is so contagious and his laughter is so precious.”
“I want my baby back in my arms," the boy’s mother continued. “Maddox is my whole world and my reason for living.”
Maddox disappeared while he was at Rankin Lake Park with his father and another adult. His father was not at Tuesday’s press conference but officials said he was out assisting the search.
Maddox has blonde hair and blue eyes. He is 4 feet tall and weighs 45 pounds.
Officials say Maddox is nonverbal.
Officials are asking anyone at the park the day Maddox went missing to come forward - including a male jogger and a photographer who was reportedly at the park taking pictures of children in Dr. Seuss costumes.
A park employee called police, officials said.
Additional searching equipment, including ATVs and a pontoon boat with special sonar, was brought in Tuesday as crews continued searching for Maddox.
“He’s just sitting there waiting on somebody to come and get him,” said Janet Hayes, who shed tears while speaking with reporters.
DAY 3 UPDATE:
Monday afternoon, officials held a press conference about ongoing search efforts.
A better photo of the clothes Maddox was last seen wearing was shown, and officials said a recording was being played with a message from the boy’s parents, in hopes that he will hear it and come toward their voices.
More than 24 agencies have joined the search, including the FBI, who says they are looking at every possibility, including abduction.
The FBI has a team that is highly specialized in searching for missing children. That team arrived at the scene Sunday.
“The public can help by calling police if they were at Rankin Lake Park Saturday and saw Maddox or took video or photos of their outing at the park,” Gastonia police say. “No piece of information is too small and could be helpful to the case.”
Monday, deputies blocked the entrances to Rankin Lake Park as the search entered day three.
The search was expanded two miles outside of the park Monday, when the search for Maddox resumed around 7 a.m.
A “missing” poster of Maddox has been added to the FBI’s website and social media accounts. A link to the poster can be found here.
Helton is asking people that live around the area of Rankin Lake Park to check their homes and property, including sheds and garages.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is also assisting in the search.
“We have been searching the park non-stop since the 911 call came in yesterday to report Maddox missing,” chief Helton said. “We have trained searchers walking through the entire park, checking every area, every trail, every corner. Search dogs are also helping with those ground efforts.”
Search boats from the Charlotte Fire Department searched the lake all day, checking the water with sonar devices and divers. Agents and detectives with more than a dozen local, state, and federal agencies have also conducted interviews, and followed many leads.
“We are working around the clock with one goal in mind to find Maddox and bring him home safely,” Helton said. “We have gotten calls from many people in the community eager to help and we appreciate that. At this time, we have trained search and rescue personnel blanketing the area.”
DAY 2 UPDATE:
Efforts continued through Saturday night and into Sunday morning as an entire community has searched for Maddox.
Units were sent out on foot with search dogs and drones were used to continue the efforts overnight.
Hundreds of law enforcement officers and search and rescue teams from local, state and federal agencies are currently involved in the search - looking on the ground and in the water.
Search efforts Sunday included re-tracing steps on foot and canvassing local houses and nearby businesses to see if anyone reports seeing the child during this time.
While Gastonia Police are receiving offers from the public to volunteer to assist in the search, they are keeping the park closed to the public until further notice.
Activities scheduled at the park for Sunday were also cancelled due to the continuing search.
An AMBER Alert has not been issued because police say the case does not fit the criteria as there is no known abduction as of Saturday night.