Missing boy Maddox Smith

Witness recalls talking to Maddox Ritch at park on same day he disappeared: Report

A woman who was at a North Carolina park when a young boy disappeared last week recalled seeing him jumping around and playing on the day he vanished.

Brooke Sheppard told WSBTV that she was at a church picnic at Rankin Lake Park in Gastonia on September 22, when a young boy walked up behind her while she walked down around the lake with her daughter and mother. She said the boy was skipping, jogging around and didn’t say anything to her when she talked to him.

“I can remember her looking over and asking him, ‘hey buddy are you tired?’ because he had just been skipping, jogging, being a kid,” Sheppard recalled.

When Sheppard later learned that day that a boy had disappeared from the park, she immediately knew it was the same child she spoke to. She remembered watching him jog away from her and toward the park office, and assumed he was heading back to his family or whoever he was at the park with.

“I knew immediately that was him, because I can remember seeing him, and then he was in front of me. I can just remember it to a T,” Sheppard said.

Shepard said she told authorities numerous times about the encounter. She was heartbroken to later learn he was found deceased less than a week after she saw him.

“My heart broke. It was sad. I’m sure everybody else feels the same way, they felt like they knew him because they were searching so hard for him, and we all had high hopes of they’re going to find him, they’re going to find him.”

Sheppard’s story helped corroborate the version of events that Maddox’s father, Ian Ritch, told police. The worried father told authorities that his son, who was autistic and non-verbal, ran ahead of him while chasing a jogger. Ian said the boy ran fast and disappeared before he could catch up with him.

Last week, a park employee who was working the day Maddox vanished indicated he never saw the little boy even one time.

“I’ve worked there almost three years and we see everybody come in and out of that park pretty much,” park worker Rick Foxx told CBS. “I didn’t see that kid one time.”

As CrimeOnline previously reported, North Carolina search crews found the body of a small boy on Thursday afternoon. Authorities later announced the body was likely of Maddox, who disappeared at around 1:30 p.m. on September 22, while at the park with his father and another adult.

Maddox was found in Long Creek around a mile east of his last known location. FBI Supervisory Agent Jason Kaplan said boy’s body was camouflaged and “mixed in a harsh environment” of underbrush, sticks, and other natural strainers.

“The investigation is not over..It’s absolutely amazing that he was found. It was extremely difficult even when we were standing right next to him,” Kaplan said, while pleading for anyone who was at Rankin Lake Park last Saturday to come forward.

Kaplan also added that Maddox was found partially submerged in around two to three feet of water.

At this time, authorities cannot answer what clothing Maddox was found wearing or whether there was trauma to his body. The cause of death remains unclear, pending an autopsy.

The story continues to develop. Check back with CrimeOnline as additional details become available.

[Feature Photo: Maddox Ritch/Handout]