Father of missing North Carolina boy: ‘I know I’m the number one suspect’

GASTONIA, North Carolina — The father of a 6-year-old boy who disappeared from a North Carolina park over the weekend said Wednesday that the search for his son has been “torture.”

Ian Ritch joined Gastonia police and FBI agents for a news conference, taking questions from reporters just hours after appearing on ABC’s “Good Morning America” to talk about Maddox Ritch, the boy who disappeared Saturday as he walked with his father at Rankin Lake Park.

“I’m not eating. I’m not sleeping,” Ritch said. “I’m just worried about getting my little boy back. I thought after the first night, he would be fine.

“I just want my little boy back home. I want to know he’s safe. I want to give him a big hug as soon as I see him,” he added. “I just want to know he’s safe.”

Ritch said he and his son, along with a friend whose name has not been released, were making their first visit to the 242-acre park. The park’s lake serves as a reservoir.

According to Ritch, Maddox was about 25 feet to 30 feet away before he broke into a sprint just as a jogger passed them. The father said he is a diabetic and because he has neuropathy in his feet, he has trouble running.

“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.

Gastonia Police Chief Robert Helton says they’ve searched thousands of acres, drained the lake and conducted hundreds of interviews. Helton says investigators still want to speak to a jogger, a person who was pulling a kayak out of the lake and anyone in a group photographing three children in Dr. Seuss costumes.

Meanwhile, Ritch knows he’s a potential target for investigators in his son’s disappearance.

“I mean, I know I’m the number one suspect when it starts. That’s plain and simple,” Ritch told CBS News, adding that he has cooperated with investigators. “Everything that they’ve asked for, I’ve given them right off the bat.”