North Carolina authorities widen search for missing 6-year-old with autism

Authorities are searching for a 6-year-old boy with autism, who is described as nonverbal and has been missing since Saturday.

Authorities searching for a missing boy in a large North Carolina park are filling the woods with the sound of his parents’ voices, hoping to draw his attention and end a three-day search.

Maddox Scott Ritch, a six-year-old with autism who’s described as nonverbal, was last seen Saturday in Rankin Lake Park in Gastonia, North Carolina. On Monday, local, state and federal authorities expanded their search two miles beyond the park’s boundaries, city police said.

Maddox’s parents worked with law enforcement to record messages that search teams are piping into the park in an attempt to coax him out if he is nearby, FBI supervisory special agent Jason Kaplan said at a news conference Monday afternoon.

“If he’s lost in the woods, he’ll be able to hear those messages played, and we’re hoping that he’ll come to the words of his mother and his father,” Kaplan said.

The city park’s large grounds include trails and paved walking paths, an 80-acre lake, about a dozen picnic shelters and an 18-hole disc golf course, according to Gastonia’s website.

The expanded search effort includes ground teams with canines and aircraft, including drones.

Authorities are also draining water from the lake to expose more of the shoreline for examination, and police are contacting businesses around the park that were closed Sunday to see whether they have surveillance video that could be of use, Gastonia Police Chief Robert Helton said.

“We want to make sure that we’re checking every possible spot to find this child.”

Helton said agents and detectives from more than a dozen local, state and federal agencies are conducting interviews and have generated more than 80 leads that are being pursued by investigators.

Maddox was last seen with his father and another adult at the park around 1:30 p.m. Saturday, according to CNN affiliate WSOC-TV.

“They were walking around the lake,” Rachel Bagley, Gastonia spokeswoman, told WSOC. “They got around to the back side of the lake. He started running, according to the parents, and when they started running after him, they lost sight of him, and no one has seen him ever since.”

On Sunday, police canceled all activities at the park and closed it to the public until further notice.

Authorities say they are investigating all possibilities into what led to Maddox’s disappearance.

“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,” said Gastonia Police Chief Robert Helton during a Sunday afternoon press conference. “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. Something you may think is insignificant could be helpful to our case.”

Police said Maddox is 4 feet tall and weighs 45 pounds. He has blond hair and blue eyes. Maddox was last seen wearing an orange T-shirt with the words “I am the man,” along with black shorts and closed-toe sandals.