Nearly four years ago, the week-long search and rescue operation for 6-year-old Maddox Ritch ended sadly, leaving an entire community in mourning.
It all started on September 22, 2018, when Maddox Ritch from North Carolina was walking in the park with his father and his father’s girlfriend.
It was a beautiful Saturday at Rankin Lake Park in Gastonia: Maddox and his dad were playing, enjoying the lake and watching the turtles go by. Then all of a sudden, Maddox ran away from his father.
The nonverbal 6-year-old boy, who was on the autism spectrum, disappeared from his father’s sight in a moment of seconds. His father, Ian Ritch, was diabetic and had trouble pursuing his son due to neuropathy in his feet.
“Likes to run. I couldn’t reach it. I feel guilty for letting him get so far ahead of me before I started running after him,” his father told reporters.
Immediately after the disappearance, an extensive search effort was launched. The local police department, state police and the FBI joined forces to find Maddox.
For a week, hundreds of law enforcement officers and search and rescue teams were in full swing. They spent countless hours searching for the blond-haired, blue-eyed boy.
No one can accuse the authorities of not putting their heart and soul into finding Maddox. The heartbreaking case also brought an entire community to its feet: everyone wanted to help. More than 150 tips were sent to the police.
In an effort to find the boy, the 80-acre lake at Rankin Park was partially drained to make the shoreline more visible. The FBI also offered $10,000 to anyone who could provide information that would help bring the boy home.
But no drone, search dog or infrared sonar technology could track Maddox. The boy, diagnosed with autism, was gone without a trace.
“I just want my little boy back,” Ritch said. “It has been torture. I’m not eating, I’m not sleeping. I’m just worried about getting my little boy back.”
After six days of frantic searching, a breakthrough came when a body was found in a creek near a busy road. Tragically, it later turned out to be Maddox.
The location was a short distance from where Maddox disappeared. Some thought the boy had fallen into the lake and floated away. Many were also surprised that the body was not found earlier by police, as it was in the area of the search operation.
When police held a news conference later, they explained why finding Maddox had been so difficult.
Authorities said it was “absolutely amazing” that the boy was found.
“Even standing next to him, he was almost completely invisible.”
An autopsy revealed that the 6-year-old boy likely drowned. He also had injuries to the upper part of his neck, probably caused by an animal attack.
Of course, the Maddox family was heartbroken after hearing the horrible news. Maddox was a lovely soul who blessed everyone around him.
He was, and still is, deeply loved.
“Maddox was my only son and he will be the only one I will ever have,” Ian Ritch posted on Facebook. “Today I discovered that I am no longer a father.”
Although nothing can bring Maddox back, his story would affect the current functioning of some units within the FBI. Hopefully his tragic story can also save another child in the future.
An FBI special agent who worked on the Maddox case realized that more knowledge was needed when a child with autism went missing. Therefore, he developed a one-page questionnaire for researchers to use when a child with autism goes missing.
“I wanted to make sure that if I had another chance, I’d be ready,” special agent James Granozio told WBTV.
Gastonia Police Department
Wheels are set in motion within the FBI when local police departments ask for help as they search for missing children. There are agents, intelligence analysts, operational specialists, and behavior analysts.
In the Maddox case, Special Agent James Granozi decided to find out as much as he could about autism and autistic children. He contacted organizations and gathered all the information he could find.
This led to a checklist being used immediately when an autistic child went missing
“Having a checklist and fact sheet about a child can be very helpful, especially if the child has specific interests,” said Kim Stroble, director of the Rock Hill Early Autism Project clinic. “Since no child or person with autism is the same, I think this is great.”
It is hoped that the questionnaire, which is only available to law enforcement, can help prevent a similar tragedy from happening again.
“He was a little boy who just ran around and had fun. And he died,” Granozio said. “So we all wanted to know what we could learn from it to hopefully prevent it from happening again.”
Prayers for the family and friends of this child. I can’t imagine how you feel. I pray that God gives you the strength you need to get through this.