A massive search is underway after a 6-year-old boy with autism went missing Saturday while at a North Carolina park with his father.
Dozens of law enforcement and emergency agencies, including the FBI, are helping search for Maddox Ritch, a young boy who vanished after his father said he was last seen running around a lake at the park in Gastonia, N.C.
Rachel Bagley, a Gastonia spokesperson, said the boy's father told authorities they were walking along the back side of the lake when the boy started running. His father and another adult present at the time started running after him, but they lost sight of him and "no one has ever seen him ever since."
Authorities are now trying to determine what happened to the young boy, who police say is non-verbal.
“We’re going to explore all possibilities, including abduction, but we’re also going to search every inch of the land around here to make sure that he’s not simply lost,” Jason Kaplan, a supervisory special agent with the FBI told the media, according to Gaston Gazette.
Police shut down the park to the public on Sunday as law enforcement officials and volunteers combed the area trying to find any evidence of the boy or his whereabouts.
Search dogs were brought in to examine the area around the lake and boats equipped with divers and sonar devices searched the water, WSOC reports.
The FBI's Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team is also aiding in the search effort.
According to Gastonia Police, authorities are also reviewing video surveillance cameras at the park and nearby homes and businesses and have asked for the public's help to find possible witnesses.
"If you were at Rankin Lake Park on Saturday and saw Maddox or took video or photos of their outing at the park, call us," Gastonia Police Chief Robert Helton said, according to a statement from police. "We know a lot of people were in the park and we have spoken to many of them, but we have not spoken to everyone. No piece of information is too small.”
Police are also asking the public to check their property, including sheds and garages, for the boy.
Ritch, who has blonde hair and blue eyes, was last seen wearing black shorts and an orange T-shirt that said "I am the man."
While authorities have said Ritch's special needs present additional challenges in the search, the FBI plans to draw on its experience with similar cases and details they are able to learn from the boy's family about what he may respond to.
“Unfortunately it’s not uncommon for special needs children, or a boy who has autism or a girl who has autism, to get lost or be missing so it’s something we deal with, unfortunately, with some frequency so the FBI has special resources,” Kaplan said, according to the Gaston Gazette.
[Photo: Gastonia Police Department]