Months after six-year-old boy Maddox Ritch went missing from a park in Gastonia, North Carolina, we finally know what caused his tragic death.
Ritch, who had autism and was nonverbal, vanished from the park after running ahead of his father on September 22, and was found dead five days later, in a creek about a mile from the park.
"I couldn't catch up with him," Maddox's father Ian told Good Morning America after the boy's disappearance. "I feel guilt for letting him get so far ahead of me before I started running after him."
During the intense five day search for Ritch, local police, state police, and even the FBI scoured Gastonia for signs of him, as his case attracted nationwide attention.
Police even partially drained an 80-acre lake, and used high-tech drones to search for the boy.
But after news broke that Ritch’s body had been discovered, his case stalled for for two months as police waited for results from the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner’s office.
Finally, an autopsy report released this week revealed that Ritch’s death has been ruled a "probably drowning" by the medical examiner.
"The findings are not inconsistent with drowning," the report read. "In conjunction with investigative information at this time, which gives no indication of other than an accidental drowning, it seems reasonable to conclude that the likely cause of death is drowning."
A search dog from the @MissingKids inside drainage pipes. We are searching everywhere possible to #FindMaddox. Call the @GPDNC tip line! We desperately need to hear from those in the park on Saturday. 704-869-1075. pic.twitter.com/A66XksUEhC— FBI Charlotte (@FBICharlotte) September 26, 2018
Police say Ritch’s body was found still submerged under two or three feet of water in an area volunteers had already searched several times.
The medical examiner’s report also noted that Ritch was discovered wearing the same clothes he had been in at the time of his disappearance.
Gastonia Police Chief Robert Helton thanked the public for their patience, as he announced that the investigation into Ritch’s death was closed, and that no charges would be filed in relation to the boy’s death.
"I ask for continued prayers for Maddox's family and everyone touched by this child's tragic death," he said in a statement.
Ritch’s parents have not made a public statement following the news, but Ian shared this emotional message in a Facebook post after his son’s body was discovered:
I had big plans with my son. I wanted us to go fishing play ball go camping. 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 him say my daddy. Now I'm no hero I couldn't save him or protect him at all. I would give anything to go back and save him.