Potential witnesses still needed after boy’s body found, Gastonia police say

Investigators still want to talk to potential witnesses in the disappearance of Maddox Ritch, authorities said Friday, a day after a body believed to be that of the autistic 6-year-old was found in Gastonia.

“The investigation continues,” Gastonia police said in a morning tweet. It added that while authorities can’t disclose the details of the probe, “we continue to ask those who may have been at the park on that day to please contact the Gastonia Police Department.” The department’s tip line is 704-869-1075.

Searchers found the body Thursday partially submerged in a creek near Rankin Lake Park, where Maddox’ father has said he last saw the boy Saturday afternoon. The Mecklenburg County medical examiner’s office will identify the body, police said.

Donna Lahser, a city and Gastonia police spokeswoman, said by email Friday morning that authorities are waiting for a report from the medical examiner’s office. No other information will be released for now, she said.

The discovery left many questions unanswered, authorities said Thursday. Among them: How did the boy die? Was a crime committed? How did the body reach Long Creek, about a mile east of the park?

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FBI special agent Jason Kaplan told reporters Thursday that “in law enforcement, nothing is taken for granted. We still want to hear from people who were in the park that day.”

Chief among the possible witnesses appeared to be a man who was seen at the park in a white pickup truck, loading a kayak at a boat ramp. Kaplan said investigators “believe he’s a witness who might have seen Maddox for the last time.”

Police have said they were also looking for a male jogger who was in the area.

Ian Ritch, the boy’s father, told “Good Morning America” on Tuesday that Maddox started running after spotting a jogger on the trail around the lake 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.

It’s possible, authorities said Thursday, that the boy walked along Long Creek from the park and under U.S. 321 to where his body was found in two to three feet of water. A future greenway is planned for the area.

In a Facebook post Thursday night, Ian Ritch blamed himself for the disappearance of his “sweet lil buddy.”

“I wanted to be his heroe. I wanted him to say i was more than superman or batman to him. I wanted people to ask him who his heroe is and him say my daddy,” the post read in part. “Now im no heroe i couldnt save him or protect him at all. I would give anything to go back and save him. While a lot of people dont believe anything i have said in the past believe this. From this moment on for the rest of my life i will live with the guilt of not being there to save my son.”

More than 750 comments had been posted by Friday morning, most of them offering prayers and support.

The five-day search for Maddox involved hundreds of participants and two dozen agencies. Discovery of the body Thursday afternoon saddened both the searchers and local residents who had observed their efforts for days.

“This is not the ending we had hoped for,” a tearful Gastonia Police Chief Robert Helton told reporters.

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 shortly after the announcement.

“It’s not much, just a simple little gesture from the people of Gastonia,” she said Thursday. “This little boy became our little boy, not just his mom and dad’s.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051; @bhender