By Jennifer Miller
CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The father of the boy that sparked a six-day long search in Gastonia posted an emotional statement on Facebook after learning his son's body was likely found.
"Maddox was my only child and he will be the only one I will ever have," Ian Ritch posted on Facebook. "Now today I found out I'm not a dad anymore."
Maddox Ritch disappeared Saturday afternoon at Rankin Lake Park after running off and out of sight, his dad says. The boy’s disappearance prompted a nearly week-long search in and around the park. The community hoped for a better outcome.
Thursday, officials said they believed they found the little boy's body. The body was found in Long Creek near the park, off of Marietta Street near Old Dallas Highway.
Ian Ritch said he had "big plans" for his son. "I wanted to be his hero. I wanted him to say I was more than Superman or Batman to him. I wanted people to ask him who his hero is and he say, my daddy."
“Now I'm no hero I couldn't save him or protect him at all,” Ian Ritch posted. “I would give anything to go back and save him.”
Ian said he will continue to live with the guilt of not being able to save Maddox. “I will now and forever be a broken man until I take my last breath,” Ian Ritch said in the post.
Ian called the Facebook to post his last response he will give to “anyone.”
"Just please hug ur children tighter and please don't make my mistake and let them get too far away from u."
The post generated nearly 800 hundred comments and over 1,000 shares.
At a press conference several hours after the body was found, officials said it was “absolutely amazing” that they made the discovery.
“Even standing right next to him, he was almost completely invisible,” officials said.
Chief Welch stressed that the place where Maddox was found had been searched many times previously - stating that foot patrol, drones and ATV’s had all been used over that area as recently as Tuesday.
So how could the little boy leave the park without anyone seeing him? There is a trail along Long Creek adjacent to the park that continues for more than a mile. It also goes underneath Highway 321 and goes through areas where no one could see someone walking.
A crew of 15 searchers uncovered the body along an area connected by a path under Highway 321 in a future greenway area. The body was found partially submerged underwater in an area with significant underbrush.
Neighbors and community members who invested in the search were heartbroken over Thursday’s news.
Crews utilized special search teams and equipment, even searching in the park's lake for the boy.
Ian said he and his new girlfriend were on a track at the park when Maddox took off behind a jogger and disappeared.
“All of us was together. Everything was great And then a jogger passed by and as he was jogging past us, that’s when Maddox started to jog out behind him,” the boy’s father said Wednesday in an interview with CBS Correspondent David Begnaud.
“So I usually just give him a little space and let him do his thing and once we got so far, he took off from me running and I tried to catch him. And I just never could catch up with him,” Ian continued.
"He had too much of a head start on me."
Begnaud, puzzled, asked how Ian lost sight of his son so suddenly.
Ian said people were on the path and blocking his view. He said Maddox had "too many options” and could have gone into the parking lot or on the track.
“I mean, I know I’m the number one suspect when it starts. That’s plain and simple,” Ian said to Begnaud.
Ian said he alerted park staff moments after Maddox vanished.
According to the 911 call, made by a park employee, Maddox was missing for approximately an hour before the employee made the call.
“We’ve got a missing kid. He’s been missing for the last 30-40 minutes. An hour maybe,” the caller said.
“We searched everywhere,” the caller stated.
Law enforcement officials say the investigation is far from over.
They are continuing to demand anyone who was at the park that day to call their tip line: 704-869-1075.
A positive identification of the body will be released by the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner’s Office.
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