The body found partially submerged in a creek in North Carolina has been confirmed to be missing 6-year-old Maddox Ritch, authorities said Monday.
"We are deeply saddened to learn the body found by searchers last Thursday is confirmed to be Maddox Ritch," Gastonia Police Chief Robert Helton said in a statement Monday. "Hundreds of people searched tirelessly for this child and our work continues to answer every question we can about his tragic death.”
Autopsy results are still pending, police said, and it's not yet clear how Maddox went from the park to the creek.
Maddox, who has autism and is non-verbal, was at Rankin Lake Park in Gastonia, North Carolina, with his father and another adult when he disappeared on Saturday, Sept. 22.
After days of intensive searching, the body was found Thursday about a mile from the park, officials said.
Maddox's father, Ian Ritch, had said the little boy started sprinting roughly 25 to 30 feet ahead of him before running out of sight.
"As soon as I got to the point where I couldn’t see him anymore, I started panicking," he said last week.
"I would give anything to go back and save him," Ritch wrote on Facebook hours after the body was recovered. "For the rest of my life I will live with the guilt of not being there to save my son. ... hug ur[sic] children tighter and please don't make my mistake and let them get too far away."
Ritch in his statement also thanked those who scoured the park and "everyone in the community that were hoping and praying and just took one second of their time to think about Maddox."
After Maddox disappeared, a park employee called 911, sparking a massive search by local, state and federal investigators. They scoured the land with police dogs, searched dumpsters, waded through the park's lake using sonar and divers and scanned the area with helicopters and drones, police said.
Authorities also recorded messages from Maddox's parents and played those messages in the woods in the hopes that their voices might persuade him to come out if he was there.
Anyone who was at Rankin Lake Park that day is urged to call the tip line at 704-869-1075.