More details are emerging about where the body of missing 6-year-old boy Maddox Ritch was found, but authorities in North Carolina are still searching for an answer to the central question of how he died.
Gastonia Police Chief Robert Helton fought back tears and a breaking voice during a news conference in which it was announced officials believed the body searchers found was that of Maddox Ritch.
"Our community's heartbroken. This is not the end that we hoped for," Helton said. "I've lost a lot of sleep this week worrying about Maddox."
Gastonia Fire Chief Phil Welch said the body was found in a creek, slightly more than a mile east of Rankin Lake Park, by a searcher who was walking down the middle of the creek as his partners stood on the bank. He said the area had been searched previously by drones, all-terrain vehicles and foot patrols.
Welch said a crew of 15 searchers returned to the creek and discovered the body.
"There is no sense of accomplishment here today," Welch said. "There is grieving down at our command post."
FBI special agent Jason Kaplan, also fighting tears, said the investigation into what happened to Maddox will continue. He said the water wasn't more than 3 feet deep at the spot where the body was found, adding that it's too early to say whether foul play was involved. Neither he nor the other officials would provide additional details, including how long the body had been in the creek.
Police still want to speak with people who were at the park on Saturday. On person of interest is a man in a white truck who police believe may have been the last person to see the boy alive, according to CBS News.
The news release says the boy's parents have been notified about the body being found, and police scheduled a news conference for later in the afternoon Friday.
Both parents went before the media this week to plead for any information that would lead to the discovery of Maddox, who was autistic and non-verbal. On Wednesday, Ian Ritch appeared on national television and at a news conference to repeat the pleas.
Ritch said Maddox ran off from him and a friend at the park and disappeared before he could catch up to him.
Maddox was about 25 feet to 30 feet away before he broke into a sprint just as a jogger passed them, Ritch said, adding that he is diabetic and has trouble running because he has neuropathy in his feet.
"He likes running," Ritch said. "I couldn't catch up with him. I feel guilt for letting him get so far ahead of me before I started running after him."
Ritch said the boy looked back at him and laughed, adding that he would slow down and then speed up again. With the help of the friend, Ritch searched for his son but couldn't find him. Park personnel also joined in the search but didn't see Maddox, either. After an hour, Ritch called 911, saying he delayed that call because he thought he would find his son and there was no reason to call police.
Earlier this week, park employee Rick Foxx, who was the one who called 911 to report the boy missing, said he didn't see Maddox at the park and doubted he was ever there as Ritch claimed.
However, investigators put those doubts aside.
"There is a lot of information indicating that Maddox was where the family indicated he was, and that his movements were what they indicated," said Kaplan, the FBI special agent, according to CBS News.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
[Photo: Gastonia Police Department]