One of the worst fears a parent can have is losing their child in a large, public place. Ian Ritch can sadly relate to that, as his autistic son Maddox was found dead after going missing five days earlier in a local park. And following this tragic news, the boy’s heartbroken father talked about a mistake he felt he’d made.
Residents of Concord, North Carolina, Ian and his wife Carrie were the proud parents of six-year-old Maddox. Working as a grocery manager in a local supermarket, the former built up a strong relationship with his young son, who suffered from autism.
Maddox’s autism also caused him to be nonverbal. But despite those challenges, Ian still wanted to take part in typical father-son activities with Maddox. With that in mind, he took the six-year-old to Rankin Lake Park in September 2018. Sadly, though, the family’s lives would be changed forever later that afternoon.
During their time at the park, Maddox ran off out of Ian’s sight, leaving his dad unable to find him. After searching for a while, Ian contacted a member of staff, who then called 911 an hour later when Maddox still hadn’t turned up. “We’ve got a missing kid,” the person making the call said, according to WISTV. “He’s been missing for the last 30-40 minutes. Hour maybe. We searched everywhere.”
That call sparked a town-wide search for Maddox that lasted five days, with the community coming together to help find the youngster. Alongside local volunteers, police also utilized all-terrain vehicles and drones in the surrounding areas, combing the city of Gastonia tirelessly.
A few days into the search, Ian offered some in-depth insights to the media about what had happened, describing the last time that he’d seen his son. “All of us was together,” the dad told CBS News in September 2018. “Everything was great. And then a jogger passed by, and as he was jogging past us, that’s when Maddox started to jog out behind him.”
“So I usually just give him a little space and let him do his thing, and once we got so far, he took off from me running and I tried to catch him,” Ian continued. “And I just never could catch up with him. He had too much of a head start on me.”
Tragically, Maddox’s body was found by police the day after that interview. It was discovered near Highway 321, around a mile away from the park. According to officials, that particular area had already been searched several times, but the underbush might well have obscured the body of the six-year-old.
Unsurprisingly, Ian was left devastated by the discovery, and the community as a whole was also reeling. Heartbroken, the dad then took to Facebook to write up a lengthy, emotional message about Maddox, detailing their close relationship. Prior to that, though, he opened the post with some words of gratitude.
“First, I want to say thank [you] from the bottom of my heart to everyone who took part in searching for my sweet lil buddy,” Ian wrote in September 2018. “I truly appreciate everything everyone did to find him. And to everyone in the community that [was] hoping and praying and just took one second of their time to think about Maddox, I thank y’all too.”
At that point, Ian switched his focus to Maddox, highlighting their close bond as father and son. “I loved that lil boy, he was my best lil buddy,” Ian wrote. “Maddox was my only child, and he will be the only one I will ever have.”
After that, Ian gave some detailed insights into his thinking on the day of Maddox’s disappearance, admitting that he hadn’t been too concerned initially. As the hours had rolled on, however, that had all changed, with the dad revealing the full extent of his worries.
“Now today, I found out I’m not a dad anymore,” Ian continued. “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.’”
On that note, Ian touched upon the feelings of culpability that have plagued him since Maddox’s untimely passing. “From this moment on for the rest of my life, I will live with the guilt of not being there to save my son,” he wrote on Facebook. “The most important person in my life.”
“I will now and forever be a broken man until I take my last breath,” Ian continued. “Please, all I want is some time to try to pull myself back together the best I can. So this will be my last response I give to anyone.” Before concluding his thoughts, though, the bereaved dad offered some words of advice to other parents.
“Just please hug [your] children tighter, and please don’t make my mistake and let them get too far away from [you],” Ian wrote. “Do everything [you] can with [your] children because I won’t get the chance to do anything with mine.”
From there, the heartbroken dad left his son one final message, bringing the post to a close. “Now to Maddox, I just want to say I love [you] lil buddy,” Ian concluded. “Please be waiting for me when my time comes, because I promise I’m gonna do everything I can to be with [you] rooster!”
Not long after the post was published, Ian’s message went viral, earning thousands of likes and more than 1,500 shares on Facebook. The dad’s heartbreaking words also generated over 1,000 comments, most of which expressed sympathy for his unimaginable plight.
One comment in particular stood out from all the rest, as user Erin Downes Martin offered some kind words of condolence. “Ian, you will always be a dad!” she wrote. “Maddox’s dad! Maddox will always be by your side. Never forget that. He is looking down on you right now saying, ‘daddy don’t be sad.’”
Meanwhile, Maddox’s funeral was set to take place in October 2018, giving his devastated family one last chance to say goodbye. The investigation into Maddox’s death was reportedly still ongoing at that time, however, with the FBI apparently looking for more answers about what happened that day.