GASTONIA, N.C. — The Gastonia Police Department said officers have confirmed a 6-year-old boy with special needs who was reported missing from Rankin Lake Park was in fact at the park the day he disappeared.
Search crews found the little boy's body days later in a nearby creek.
Rankin Lake Park reopened to the public Wednesday since being closed Saturday, Sept. 22, when Maddox Ritch was reported missing.
Visitors who spoke with Channel 9 said they were still able to see yellow police tape on some of the trees.
Gastonia resident Linda Griffin said she has been coming to the park for decades and described the feeling of being back at the park.
"It is eerie to know what's happened out here, but people have got to move on," Griffin said. "We've got to get our exercise and this type of thing."
Officers said they were able to confirm Maddox was at the park through public support and other evidence.
Police said earlier this week that the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed the identity of the boy found dead last week in a Gastonia creek just outside the park was Maddox Ritch.
The 6-year-old was reported missing on Saturday, Sept. 22, and after a 6-day search of Rankin Lake Park and surrounding areas, his body was found in Long Creek last Thursday.
“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.”
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.
Autopsy results are not yet complete and there is no timetable for when they will be done.
Several park visitors told Channel 9 on Wednesday they’re anxiously waiting to find out what investigators determine happened to Maddox.
“We need to know about his autopsy, so we can have closure. If there was no foul play involved, we need to know that,” said Jack Griffin.
Investigators remain committed to finding answers about where Maddox was, how his movement occurred and how his body ended up in Long Creek. Anyone who was at Rankin Lake Park on Saturday, Sept. 22, who has not already called needs to call the Gastonia Police tip line 704-869-1075.
Family members and friends are selling T-shirts in Maddox’s memory that say “#MaddoxWarriors” on them.
Visit this website for more on how to participate.
Parents and teachers are still absorbing the news at WR Odell Elementary School in Concord.
Maddox Ritch was a student there.
“I was totally shocked,” Heather Roberts, a mother at the school, said. “Very sad.”
Parents received a letter from the school saying counselors were available for students in his classes and explaining what to expect from grieving children.
"I'm definitely more on edge waiting for the bus to make sure that I'm there when she gets off,” Roberts said. “Him being so close to my daughter’s age hits so close to home. Heartbreaking. I can’t imagine not know where my daughter is.”
The death of an autistic child who had been missing for days until his body was found near a park in Gastonia has authorities searching for clues as to how he died.
FBI Agent Jason Kaplan said investigators still want to hear from people who were in Rankin Lake Park last weekend when Maddox Ritch ran away from his father.
"In law enforcement, we will not take anything for granted," Kaplan said Thursday, fighting his emotions, at a news conference where officials announced that a body had been found.
"So there's a lot of work, and 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 that he ended up where he did."
Kaplan said there has been speculation on the actions of Maddox's parents, but he said the investigation is focusing on the child's movements. Specifically, Kaplan said investigators are looking for a man in a white truck who is believed to have seen Maddox before he disappeared.
"We still want to hear from the other people who have not reached out to us," Kaplan said.
The Gastonia Police Department has led the investigation since the boy disappeared. The FBI assisted in the case.
Last Saturday, Ian Ritch said the boy ran off from him and a friend at Rankin Lake Park and disappeared before he could catch up to him. Ritch said neuropathy in his feet brought on by diabetes prevented him from running after Maddox.
Kaplan and Gastonia Fire Chief Phil Welch said the boy's body was found in about 3 feet of water in a creek, slightly more than a mile east of the park, by a searcher who was walking down the middle of the creek as his partners stood on the bank.
Welch said the area had been searched previously by drones, all-terrain vehicles, kayak teams and foot patrols.
"We were searching on the presumption that he could have moved around," Welch said.
Kaplan said while it was too early to determine whether foul play was involved in Maddox's death, investigators would pursue every angle to find out exactly what happened.
"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," Kaplan said. "Those are very difficult questions to answer, but they are questions that we will answer."
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.
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."
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."
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