A community in mourning will come together Friday to remember Maddox Ritch, the 6-year-old boy found dead in a North Carolina creek after running from his father in a park.
Devastated family, friends and first responders, who spent six days desperately searching for the boy, will gather at the chapel in the Raymer-Kepner Funeral Home at 11 a.m. to pay their respects.
The funeral comes after loved ones held an emotional visitation Thursday for Maddox, whose death shattered so many.
“I’m heartbroken,” a visibly upset Gastonia Police Chief Robert Helton told reporters on Sept. 27, hours after officials announced a body had been found. “Our community’s heartbroken … this is not the end that we hoped for.”
Maddox, who had autism and was nonverbal, vanished on Sept. 22 after he took off running in Rankin Lake Park out of his father Ian Ritch's line of vision, his dad told police.
Ritch could be seen Thursday carrying a bucket and toys to leave with his son, who had been known to love to search for turtles, WSOC-TV reported.
“Maddox was a sweet and loving little boy who was full of laughter. He loved Paw Patrol, his Teddy, playing with his bouncy balls, but above all he loved his mom and dad the most,” his obituary read.
His body was discovered in Long Creek near Marietta Street and Old Dallas Highway in Gastonia, about three-quarters of a mile away from where he had last been seen.
"Your heartfelt perseverance through this very difficult time will never be forgotten," Del Lindley, Maddox’s aunt, told WSOC-TV, speaking of her family’s gratitude to those who helped search for her nephew.
Many who had never met Maddox felt compelled to pay their respects to his grieving family, including Paula Trimnal, who brought balloons and teddy bears to the funeral home.
“I cried. It was hard. I prayed, thinking, hoping they’d find him,” Trimnal told WSOC-TV.
The family took comfort in knowing they weren’t alone in mourning Maddox.
“We realized our prayers are your prayers also, and our tears are your tears too,” Lindley said.
How Maddox died has yet to be determined.
The investigation into his death is ongoing.