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Missing 6-year-old’s dad says he ran out of sight at park. He hasn’t been seen since.

The last time Ian Ritch saw his 6-year-old son, he was running and laughing at Rankin Lake Park, Ritch told “Good Morning America” in an interview recorded Tuesday.

Maddox Ritch hasn’t been seen since midday Saturday, when he disappeared during a visit to the Gastonia park with his father and another adult, according to Gastonia Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“I just want my son home,” Ian Ritch said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon, according to a Gastonia Police news release. “It’s torture.”

Ritch thanked the hundreds of volunteers helping to find his son.

Maddox’s mother, father and the friend who visited the park with Ian Ritch “are fully cooperating with the investigation,” according to a Gastonia Police news release Wednesday night.

Just after 2:30 p.m. Saturday, a park employee called 911 to say that a child had been missing for nearly an hour. Park employees, the boy’s dad and the other adult had been searching unsuccessfully during that time, the employee said.

In the 911 call, which was released by Gastonia Police Wednesday morning, the employee said Maddox’s father last saw him near the pier in the park. The park has two fishing piers and a “viewing pier” in Rankin Lake, according to the Gastonia Parks and Recreation website.

Officials announced that the park was closed on Sunday because of the search, and it has been closed since.

During a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Ian Ritch said Maddox started running after spotting a jogger on the trail around the lake. Usually, he said, Maddox would slow down and give his dad time to catch up, but this time he ran out of sight.

Ritch said he has a bit of trouble running due to diabetes and neuropathy in his feet, and that he ran after Maddox but didn’t find him.

Maddox, who has autism, reads and talks all the time at home, his father told “Good Morning America.” Gastonia Police had said Maddox “does not speak,” but Ian Ritch explained that he’s only nonverbal with strangers.

Maddox goes to school in Concord, his father said at the press conference.

Gastonia Police Chief Robert Helton said officials still want to talk to anyone who visited the park Saturday. He said they’re especially interested in talking with a male jogger and with a man in a camouflage hat who was loading a silver kayak into a large, newer model, four-door white pick-up truck. The truck had oversized tires and running boards on the side, and the man was talking on the phone, police said.

“He may be a valuable witness and we need him to call us,” Helton said in a Gastonia Police news release Wednesday night.

On Tuesday, Helton asked a professional photographer to come forward, and on Wednesday he said that person has talked with investigators.

On Wednesday, 150 searchers in teams of 15, including the FBI’s Evidence Response Team, scoured the area near the park, Gastonia Police said. Trained searchers went into sewer lines, drainage ditches, outbuildings and nearby homes, police said.

Police said “severe weather” could hamper the search late Wednesday.

Another 67 law enforcement investigators, agents, analysts and other personnel joined the search Wednesday, bringing the total number to 330, police said. Police said they are following nearly 250 leads.

But “we are missing a very important piece of our investigation,” Police Chief Robert Helton said in Wednesday night’s news release. “There are people who were at the park on Saturday and for whatever reason haven’t called us. There’s a sign out sheet to rent boats at the park. We’ve obtained those lists and sadly not one single person who rented a boat that day has reached out to us.

“Now we have to waste precious time to track them all down,” Helton said. “Please, call us if you were at the park Saturday.”

The FBI’s dive team used equipment on Wednesday different than what had previously been used to search the lake, Gastonia Police said, without detailing the new equipment.

“We want to make sure we employ every available tool to thoroughly search the lake,” the police news release said. “It is still being drained, which will soon make it impossible to put large boats in the water.”

The City of Gastonia held a candlelight vigil for Maddox Wednesday night.

Gastonia police asked everyone who went to Rankin Lake Park on Saturday to call 704-869-1075.

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Jane Wester: 704-358-5128, @janewester
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