Missing 6-year-old Autistic Boy Found Dead Under Strange Circumstances
GASTONIA, NORTH CAROLINA — September 28, 2018
The six-day search for Maddox Ritch, who went missing at a North Carolina Rankin Lake Park, ended Thursday with the discovery of a body in a creek, officials said.
"I'm heartbroken," Gastonia Police Chief Robert Helton told reporters during an emotional news conference. "Our community is heartbroken… This is not the end we had hoped for."
Identification of the remains will be done by the medical examiner’s office, but authorities indicated they believe it is Maddox.
Police seem to suggest the child's murder happened under very strange circumstances. Jason Kaplan, an FBI supervisory special agent, said investigators want to determine the cause of death and whether a crime was committed.
Maddox Ritch's body was found in an estuary about one mile east of Rankin Lake Park, where he was last seen with his father and a friend on Saturday, according to Gastonia Fire Chief Phil Welch.
Maddox’s body was partially submerged in about two to three feet of water. The area, thick with underbrush, was searched numerous times.
The FBI in Charlotte tweeted, "With heavy hearts, we announce a body believed to be 6-year-old Maddox Ritch was found at approximately 1 p.m. off of Marietta Street/Old Dallas Highway in Gastonia. Maddox's parents have been notified of the discovery. The investigation is ongoing."
According to some reports, the body was severely mutilated, with scratches and bruises. More information about the condition of the body was not noted.
A few hours before the discovery, police were informed of alleged evidence found near the lake. FBI tweeted, "Underwater Search & Evidence Response Team is in the water at Rankin Lake Park" as part of the search.
As for the investigation, Maddox’s father, Ian Ritch, claims that his son ran away from him while walking with his friends in the Park.
"Maddox was about 25 to 30 feet away when he broke into a sprint," Ritch said. "I was giving him just a little leeway, freedom,” but Rich said he had a clear view of his son. Rich described how his son often ran ahead, but would usually slow down and stop to give him time to catch up.
"I couldn't catch up with him. I feel guilty for letting him get so far ahead of me before I started running after him," Ian Ritch told reporters on Wednesday.
But an employee of Rankin Lake Park has come forward to refute this story. Rick Fox, who has worked at Rankin Lake for about three years, said he doubted the testimony of the boy’s father.
"I have worked there for almost three years, and I see almost everyone who enters and leaves this Park. I have never seen this boy," Rick Fox said.
In addition, the Park employee said Mr. Ritch turned to him only an hour after losing his child. The father allegedly tried to find the boy himself, but finally decided to call for help. Fox went around Rankin Lake Park and called 911 in the process of finding the child. Mr. Fox also noticed that Ian Ritch was not particularly worried about the loss of Maddox, which he could not say about Maddox’s mother, Carrie Ritch, who arrived at Rankin Lake Park in a panic and confused where to go.
Maddox's mother previously said her son had a contagious smile and laugh. He loved the park, bouncy balls and his teddy bear, she said.
"Maddox is my whole world and my reason for living. He's mama's boy."
Ian Ritch said he and a friend who was with him, as well as park staff members, first helped search for Maddox. Chief Helton said a part-time park employee reported Maddox missing. According to a 911 call released by police, the caller told authorities Maddox’s parents had searched for him for almost an hour.
"We searched everywhere," the man said on the phone call.
Maddox’s father added not being able to find his son has "been torture."
"I'm not eating. I'm not sleeping. I'm just worried about getting my little boy back," he said before Thursday’s announcement.
At the same time, the FBI said they had evidence of the boy's presence in the park that day. Agency representatives refused to describe the evidence in more detail and noted that the investigation is ongoing.
Ian Ritch says his son was 10 meters from him then simply started running away; having diabetes, he couldn't catch up with Maddox. Ian was the last person to see his autistic son alive.
As it turned out, blue-eyed Maddox was last seen wearing an orange T-shirt with the words 'I am the man' along with black shorts and closed-toe sandals.
Federal, state and local authorities chased more than 150 leads, conducted hundreds of interviews, gathered surveillance videos from local stores and employed dogs, drones, sonar, ATVs and infrared technology in the search.
According to the preliminary investigation, the police now plan to talk to an unidentified male jogger who was in the park at the time, and a professional photographer whom witnesses saw taking photos of other children dressed in Dr. Seuss costumes, said Helton, the Gastonia police chief.
Hundreds of people were in the park on Saturday, including other blond-haired boys also wearing orange T-shirts, Chief Helton said.
Children with autism are prone to wandering or bolting away. When autistic children go missing, rescuers learn about their likes and dislikes, and use familiar sounds to draw them out during searches. “Many of these children are more likely to respond to a favorite character, a unique interest or familiar voice,” said Lori McIlwain, a co-founder and board member of the National Autism Association.
Maddox was described as non-verbal, which complicates the search for him. Hoping he would respond to his parents’ voices, authorities broadcast prerecorded messages across Rankin Lake Park.