Crime & Courts

Mother of 6-year-old missing since Saturday: ‘I just want my baby home’

Maddox Ritch, 6, loves his teddy bear, bouncy balls and going to the park, his mother told reporters Tuesday in her first public appearance after her son went missing.

The child was last seen on Saturday at Rankin Lake Park in Gastonia. He was there with his father and another adult, officials said.

Maddox has autism and does not speak, according to Gastonia police.

In a tearful appeal, his mother asked anyone who was at the park Saturday to call the tip line at 704-869-1075, even if they don’t believe they saw anything noteworthy.

“I just want my baby home, please, whatever you can do,” Carrie Ritch said. “Maddox is my whole world and my reason for living.”

Maddox’s father went with investigators to the park Tuesday to show them the route he took with Maddox, Federal Bureau of Investigation spokesperson Shelley Lynch said. The other adult has not been identified, but officials said that person has also been cooperative.

The FBI’s specialized missing children team has been helping with the search, and investigators have played recordings of Maddox’s parents’ voices while they look for him.

Hundreds of people were at the park Saturday, Gastonia Police Chief Robert Helton said, and investigators are particularly trying to talk to two people who may have important information.

One man, who was in his early 30s and appeared to be a professional photographer, was taking pictures of three children dressed in Dr. Seuss costumes and holding balloons, Helton said. The children’s parents were also present, and officials want to talk to anyone in that group.

Investigators also want to talk to a male jogger who was at the park, Helton said. He didn’t say what that man was wearing.

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Asked whether investigators believe Maddox was abducted, Helton said they’re not ruling anything out. But Gastonia police have talked with the North Carolina Center for Missing Persons, according to a Monday night press release, and they determined Maddox’s case does not meet the criteria for an Amber Alert.

Amber Alerts are issued for children under 17 who are believed to have been abducted by someone other than a parent, unless they’re thought to be in danger, according to the North Carolina Center for Missing Persons website.

Helton said Amber Alerts are particularly helpful when they include a car description or something like that, and in this case, investigators don’t have a description other than what Maddox was wearing. He was dressed in an orange shirt with “I am the man” written on it, black shorts and closed-toe sandals, officials said.

Investigators have conducted hundreds of interviews and searched thousands of acres since Saturday, when the search began, Helton said.

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Gastonia Fire Chief Phil Welch said the park is surrounded by some swamplands, and searches of the park property have been repeated every day since Maddox went missing. The lake itself is being screened by sonar boats and divers, he said, and the water level is being lowered so the shoreline can be searched.

The FBI is offering a $10,000 reward for information that could help find Maddox, FBI-Charlotte Supervisory Special Agent Jason Kaplan said.

Kaplan urged people to stop spreading rumors about Maddox and the investigation, which he said can complicate the search.

Jane Wester: 704-358-5128, @janewester
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