Gastonia Police Chief Robert Helton struggled to contain his emotions Thursday as he announced an end to the five-day search for 6-year-old Maddox Ritch.
“This is not the ending we had hoped for,” Helton said after a member of a search team found what is believed to be Maddox’s body in a creek.
Investigators are left with many questions.
It’s still not known how the boy died, officials said, or how he got in the creek where his body was found.
Searchers found the body at about 1 p.m. Thursday partially submerged in Long Creek, which flows downstream from Rankin Lake Park, where Maddox was last seen, authorities said at a news conference.
Helton thanked searchers and the public for their help: “I don’t think we would have found him without their effort.”
The 45-pound boy’s body was camouflaged by debris in the creek, authorities said. He was found in about 2 or 3 feet of water, FBI special agent Jason Kaplan said at the news conference.
“It was absolutely amazing that he was found,” despite repeated combing of the area, Kaplan said. “It was extremely difficult to see him even when we were standing right next to him.”
The member of a 15-person search team who found the body was walking down the middle of the creek while other searchers were on the banks, Gastonia Fire Chief Phillip Welch said.
It’s possible, authorities said, that the boy walked along the creek from the park and under U.S. 321 to where his body was found. A future greenway is planned for the area. Maddox was found about a mile east of Rankin Lake Park, Welch said.
Searchers had previously scoured the same area using drones, ATVs and foot patrols, he said.
The investigation isn’t over, Kaplan added. It’s not known at this point whether a crime was committed, among other unanswered questions, he said.
“You shouldn’t take anything from that except to understand that in law enforcement, nothing is taken for granted,” Kaplan added. “We still want to hear from people who were in the park that day.”
He said authorities still want to hear from a man who was in a white pickup truck at the park. “I’d like to emphasize that we believe he’s a witness who might have seen Maddox for the last time.”
The boy’s parents have been notified, police said. Identification of the body will be done by the medical examiner’s office.
Maddox, who had autism and was nonverbal with strangers, was with his father and another adult at the time he disappeared.
His mother, Carrie Ritch, told reporters Tuesday that her son loves Bouncy Balls, the park and his teddy bear. She wept as she begged for the public’s help in finding her son.
“Continue praying for him because I just want my baby home, please, whatever you can do,” she said. “Maddox is my whole world and my reason for living. He’s mama’s boy. … His smile is so contagious and his laughter so precious … and I want my baby back in my arms.”
Ian Ritch, the boy’s father, told reporters Wednesday that he last saw his son running and laughing at the park. Maddox then started running after spotting a jogger on the trail around the lake, Ritch said, and continued out of sight. Ritch, who said he has foot pain because of diabetes, said he ran after his son but couldn’t find him.
“I just want my son home,” Ritch said at the Wednesday news conference, according to a Gastonia police news release. “It’s torture.”
The search for the boy escalated over the five days since he disappeared, with the FBI and two dozen other agencies quickly joining the case. By Wednesday, Gastonia Police have said, 330 investigators, agents, analysts and other personnel were involved. They were following nearly 250 leads.
Shortly after police announced a body had been found Thursday, Gastonia resident Robin Marshburn had tied blue and white balloons to a street sign near the park and placed a teddy bear at its base.
“I have a little 7-year-old granddaughter, so I can imagine what this mother and father are going through,” she told reporters. “This is the one little thing we could do for this little boy. He had a lifetime to enjoy and it was taken away from him. … It’s not much, just a simple little gesture from the people of Gastonia. This little boy became our little boy, not just his mom and dad’s.”
The park had been closed to the public since Sunday as Gastonia Police pleaded with local residents to check their property, including sheds and garages. Searchers canvassed local homes and businesses to turn up any sightings of the child.
Police also enlisted the public’s help in locating potential witnesses to the boy’s disappearance.
Earlier Thursday, police had said they wanted to speak with a young man who was using the park’s boat ramp near the time Maddox was last seen. “He may be a valuable witness,” a police department statement said.
Police were also looking for a male jogger who was in the area.
The appeal for potential witnesses came as the FBI’s Underwater Search and Evidence Response Team searched the lake Wednesday with sonar and agents who were trained “to locate even the smallest possible piece of evidence underwater,” Gastonia Police said in a statement.
North Carolina Emergency Management teams also arrived to broaden the search into marshlands and the dense woods surrounding the park, the police department said.