GASTONIA, N.C. — Funeral plans are set for 6-year-old Maddox Ritch.
Saturday marked a week since the boy was reported missing at a Gastonia park.
"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," his obituary stated.
A visitation will be held on Oct. 4 at Raymer-Kepner Funeral Home in Huntersville from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The funeral service will be held on Oct. 5 in the Chapel at Raymer-Kepner Funeral Home. The service will start at 11 a.m.
We first updated WSOCTV news app users with a notification after Maddox vanished and when crews found what they believe to be his body.
To receive the latest alerts on the investigation, download the WSOCTV news app and tap the blue "Maddox Ritch" tag.
The body believed to be that of Ritch was found in a creek about a mile from Rankin Lake Park on Thursday, six days after he disappeared.
Day-after-day, a memorial on Rankin Lake Road continues to grow, with balloons, teddy bears and cards.
Community members are sending reminders that Maddox is not forgotten.
On Sept. 22, police said Rankin Lake Park was filled with hundreds of visitors. The park was a very different scene a week later.
People have been visiting the park for the memorial for Maddox. The park itself remains closed to the public.
"Whole tragedy. I did think that it might be closed, but I was wondering how long it might take,” park visitor Peter Ericson said. "All of Gastonia has been feeling the pain of this over the past week."
Ellisa Williams, a mother who visited the park on Saturday, said the search for Maddox became personal and she was filled with a rollercoaster of emotions.
"First, I had hope that he would be found,” Williams said. “I became worried, like I lost sleep. After I got the news, I was very heartbroken."
Broken hearts are being shared across the region. Strangers have been praying together for Maddox.
"We can come together as people as a community to make something so sad, something good,” Williams said.
"Just a sweet innocent child,” park visitor Melissa Gentry said. "A child that just wanted to be free and play."
On Saturday, FBI Charlotte tweeted that “We remain committed to making sure that we answer every question we can about where Maddox was, how his movement occurred and how his body ended up in Long Creek."
After investigators announced they located the body believed to be Ritch, they said there is still work to be done to determine his cause of death.
Beginning Thursday night, a memorial grew for little Maddox. Heartbroken families brought stuffed animals to the entrance of the park to remember the boy who loved his own teddy bear.
"My heart is broken for little Maddox," Tina Myers said Friday at the memorial.
She never met the boy, but felt attached.
"I lost a part of me too,” Myers said. “I lost a part of me too."
Police said at about 1 p.m. on Thursday search crews discovered the body off Marietta Street and Old Dallas Highway.
The community continues to search for answers.
"There is no way that baby walked from (Highway) 321, and nobody seen that baby," resident Rose Martin said.
But the creek and the path go under the highway. There is also a lot of debris in the creek and a canopy of trees overhead.
Paul Weichert lives near the park. Police and the FBI searched his home twice. He wants to know the details surrounding Maddox’s mysterious death.
"I think there is more to it," Weichert said.
"There is no sense of accomplishment here today,” said FBI Special Agent Jason Kaplan. “There's grieving down at our command post. I'd also like to say that the investigation is not over.”
Crews found Maddox’s body partially underwater in Long Creek, which is an area they’ve searched all week.
"There's a lot of people that have lost a lot of sleep and are committed to continuing to making sure we answer every question that we can about where Maddox was, how his movement occurred and how it was he ended up where he did,” Kaplan said.
Gastonia's Police Chief said the search for Maddox was the biggest response he's seen in his 32 years in law enforcement.
The FBI said Maddox's parents have been notified of the discovery, and the investigation is ongoing.
Police said identification of the body will be done by the medical examiner’s office.
Detectives aren’t sure how Maddox died, but said there are many indicators that Maddox was in the park when he disappeared.
"We've had some answers to the questions we've been asking for a long time,” Kaplan said. “There are so many unsettled answered.”
Detectives said they are focused on talking to people who were at the park on Saturday.
"Retrace all the steps,” Kaplan said. “Retrace that creek bed, and look, so we can find maybe where he entered down there at the water.”
Investigators hope to have answers into the cause of Maddox’s death.
"What was the cause of death? Was there any crime that was committed or are we simply looking at an accident?” Kaplan said. “Those are very difficult questions to answer, but those are questions we will answer."
In a news conference on Thursday, Gastonia Police Chief Robert Helton broke down into tears while giving the tragic update.
"I'm heartbroken today. Our community is heartbroken. Our searchers, our investigators, this is not the end that we had hoped for," Helton said.
The Gastonia Fire Chief Phil Welch said a crew of 15 searchers found the body about a mile away from the park.
"The area we found Maddox in was about a mile east outside of the park in Long Creek. That area, I will assure you, had been searched numerous times. We used drones in that area, we used ATVs in that area, and foot patrol prior was in the area as recent as Tuesday."
Late Thursday afternoon, Chopper 9 Skyzoom was overhead as officials were wading into the creek.
Maddox's father, Ian Ritch, and a friend were with Maddox last Saturday at the Gastonia Park when Ian said his son decided to take off and got too far away from him.
Hundreds of people were working round-the-clock to find Maddox, and police said they followed nearly 250 leads.
An elite FBI dive team with specialized equipment was brought in to assist in the search in Rankin Lake on Thursday.
"They have specialized sonar equipment,” Former FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker said. “They would grid out a search even though it's a lake bottom."
North Carolina Emergency Management teams broadened the search area deeper into the marshlands and further east and north through the woods surrounding the park.
"Things like footprints and physical searches, I would say are close to winding down,” Swecker said.
Swecker told Channel 9 that the rainy weather likely complicated the search.
"They're just holding a perimeter and just holding what they have,” Swecker said. “They really can't search that well at night in the rain."
The search for Maddox intensified with crews using planes, helicopters and drones in the air, and ATVs and police K9 on the ground, as well as checking manholes and drainage pipes.
“The search was an evidence grid search and that focuses on not just finding a person the size of a 6-year-old, but any small, minute piece of evidence,” Kaplan said earlier in the week.
On Wednesday, Maddox's father spoke publicly for the first time, pleading for help in the search for his son.
“He hasn't had any food or drink since Saturday, so I’m worried about, if he's resourceful enough to make it on his own like that,” Ian Ritch said.
Officials said finding and speaking to people who were at the park was challenging.
"I know for a fact that there were some shelters rented out that day,” Helton said. “We're having to try to locate those folks, but this is very taxing and taking valuable time away from us."
Officials said they still have not been able to talk to a man who was using the boat ramp to back his truck in and load up a silver kayak. The man's truck is described as a large, newer model, 4-door white, pick-up truck. It had oversized tires and running boards on the side.
They are still asking people with information to call the tipline at 704-869-1075.
"We still ask, as we have for this week, and many of you have called and we appreciate that. We still want to hear from the others who have not reached out to us. Please, call the number we have given previously and contact us and let us know about that."
Earlier in the week, Ian Ritch called the days since Maddox's disappearance "torture."
“It’s torture. It’s torture,” Ian Ritch said. “I just want my little boy back home.”
Ian Ritch said he didn't call police right away because he, his friend, and park staff were all searching.
"I'm worried," Ian Ritch said. "I thought after the first night, he'd be found."
When asked what he would say to Maddox if he's listening, Ian Ritch said, "Maddox, M-A-D-D-O-X, I love you buddy."
In an earlier interview with "Good Morning America," Ian Ritch said, "We were walking on a track around the lake. He just decided to take off from me and I let him go a little bit because he likes running so I didn't think nothing of it. He just got a little too far away from me before I could catch up to him."
Ian said he started to panic as soon as it got to the point where he could not see Maddox anymore.
"I'd love to let you see the difference between him running and you running 'cause he's pretty fast," Ian Ritch said. "It's hard. I'm so worried, and scared hoping that he's OK out there."
Ian Ritch said he wishes he could have handled the situation differently.
"I should've called him. I should've not let him get so far ahead of me before I started after him," Ian Ritch said. "It's been hard to sleep. I feel guilty because I can go into a house and lay down in a bed and my little boy might be out there in the woods sleeping on the ground. That's very upsetting."
Maddox's mother, Carrie, pleaded Tuesday with anyone who saw her son at the park to come forward.
"Continue praying for him, because I just want my baby home," she said, breaking down into tears during the Tuesday news conference. "Please, anything you can do."
The FBI had announced a $10,000 reward for information that could help investigators find Maddox.
Officials said they want to speak with a professional photographer who was in the park taking pictures of three children wearing Dr. Seuss costumes. They said he may have inadvertently captured clues they need.
Officials said search crews on ATVs checked new areas around the park on Tuesday, looking for any trace of the boy. The Charlotte Fire Department brought in a pontoon equipped with sonar that is pulled behind the boat.
Charlotte's FBI office said agents were searching all around the park, and the Gastonia Police SWAT team searched area dumpsters on Monday.
Channel 9 followed Gastonia police officers and troopers Tuesday morning going door-to-door at businesses along Highway 321 just a few blocks away from the park. They are looking to obtain security camera video that might tell them where Maddox went.
An employee at Valani Apparel told Channel 9 it's the sixth time that law enforcement has come to their business looking for video since the boy was reported missing.
“They’ve checked the dumpsters, we’ve seen them go from business to business, and they’ve just been in and out of our office,” said Faith Gates.
Monday local and federal authorities posted to social media outlets asking people to not spread false rumors.
"The Gastonia Police Department and the FBI ask the public not to spread rumors on social media about the search for Maddox Ritch," the post read.
Dozens of people continued to look for the child and more than two dozen agencies were helping with the search and investigation.
On Monday, more searchers from Shelby and Cleveland County combed the woods in and around the park.
Police said Maddox was with his father and another adult, who officials do not initially identify, before he disappeared at the park around 1:30 p.m. Saturday.
"They were walking around the lake,” Gastonia spokeswoman Rachel Bagley said. “They got around to the back side of the lake. He started running, according to the parents, and when they started running after him, they lost sight of him, and no one has seen him ever since."
Maddox was diagnosed with autism, and officials said there was a special team with the FBI that is highly trained and experienced in mysterious missing children's cases that were working to find him.
Officials also said they used recorded messages from Maddox's mother and father to play during the search.
On Tuesday, officials sent a dog into the woods with a device blaring Maddox's mother's voice, hoping he would recognize it and come out.
"We're going to explore all possibilities, including abduction, but we're also going to make sure we search every inch of land around here to make sure that he's not simply lost," said Kaplan.
Police said the boy’s family was interviewed and is cooperating with law enforcement.
During Monday’s news conference, a Charlotte minister questioned why Maddox’s parents had not spoken publicly yet.
"Why are the parents not coming out to plead for help for their child?" Minister Raymond Johnson asked. “I've seen a whole lot of cases where a member of the family will come out and say, 'This is my niece or my nephew, and we want to find this child.'”
A spokesperson with the FBI warned against anyone trying to judge how a parent should respond when their child is missing. Both of Maddox's parents eventually addressed the public in news conferences.
Others wanted to know why, if police were investigating the possibility of an abduction, had no Amber Alert been issued.
Investigators explained that the case must meet specific criteria first. The child must be under 17 and must be believed to have been abducted, but not by a parent.
The kidnapping must also be reported to the police. Investigators said this case did not meet all of those requirements so they did not activated an Amber Alert.
Neighbors nearby told Channel 9 that the terrain around the park has many deep holes and they were concerned that Maddox could have fallen in one.
"Pray to God that they find him alive," nearby resident Jerry Stewart said.
He said there is a lot of wetland around the park, and it would be easy for a child to step into a deep drop.
"If you get too close and you miss your step, you are going to go somewhere," Stewart said.
On Sunday, search dogs roamed the area near Rankin Lake, where Maddox was last seen. Search boats also checked the lake with divers and sonar devices.
Officials used drones throughout the day and night in the search. They also lowered the water level in Rankin Lake to see more of the shoreline.
"Just like today, we've been backtracking over areas that we've already covered, just to make sure that we're really doing this thing thoroughly," Gaston County Fire Marshal Eric Hendrix said.
Police are asking anyone who may have been at Rankin Lake Park on Saturday and saw Maddox, especially if they have pictures or videos, to call them.
"We greatly appreciate the outpouring of support from the community to help us in the search for Maddox," Helton said in a statement Tuesday. "The most impactful way the public can help us right now is to call us if you were at the park on Saturday. Hundreds of people were there and we have only spoken to a few dozen. We need to talk to every single person who was there, you may know something that could help us."
Maddox was last seen wearing an orange T-shirt with “I’m the man” on the front. On Monday, officials released pictures of the clothing he was reportedly wearing.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's helicopter was deployed Sunday night once the sun set, and used its infrared technology.
The city of Gastonia confirmed that investigators were reviewing surveillance video at the park.
Gastonia police said additional search units from around the region joined the search. They said hundreds of law enforcement, search and rescue teams, and state and federal authorities were involved.
Officials said they are received assistance from the Gastonia Police, Gaston County Sheriff's Department, Gaston County Emergency Management, Gaston County Police, Gastonia and Gaston County Fire Departments, Lincoln County Sheriff's Department, Lincolnton Fire, Charlotte Fire, Stanley Rescue, Lincoln County Land Search team, Spartanburg County Search and Rescue and Search and Rescue Dog Assistance, and Central Carolina K-9 Search Team.
Officials have not commented on the circumstances of Maddox's death.
Authorities said they want to know how the little boy got to the area where his body was found and what caused his death.
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