LAWRENCE — Danvers school officials repeatedly complained about the performance of a security camera system installed at the town’s newly renovated high school in the months leading up to the 2013 murder of math teacher Colleen Ritzer by a 14-year-old student, according to e-mails discussed in court Tuesday.
The revelations came at a Superior Court hearing in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Ritzer’s parents, Peggie and Thomas Ritzer of Andover, in 2016. DiNisco Design, the Boston-based firm that designed a nearly $80 million renovation to the high school, is the last defendant in the lawsuit.
The town of Danvers and a cleaning company employed by the school department were previously dropped from the suit. Tuesday’s hearing was held on DiNisco Design’s motion for summary judgment to have a judge, and not a jury, decide the case.
The cameras were working on the afternoon of October 22, 2013, and could have been monitored live if Danvers school officials had assigned someone to watch them, but no one was watching at the time, DiNisco attorney Katherine L. Kenney argued.
Video from the system was used extensively in the 2015 trial of Philip D. Chism, who was convicted of first-degree murder, Kenney said. Video shown at the trial captured Chism, then 14, following Ritzer, 24, into a girls’ bathroom after school. He exited minutes later, but returned with a recycling cart and then exited a final time.
Chism raped and murdered Ritzer using a box cutter inside the bathroom, then put her body into the recycling cart. He then dragged the recycling cart into woods behind the school, where Ritzer’s body was found hours later.
He was sentenced to life in prison and is eligible for parole after 40 years. Ritzer’s murder was one of the worst cases of school violence in state history.
However, “there’s just no question that that system was not functional and not operational on the day of the attack on Ms. Ritzer,” Daniel Murphy, an attorney for Ritzer’s parents argued.
The school’s resource officer at the time, Sergeant Stephen Baldassare, had to use a paper map key to figure out which camera feeds showed which part of the school and that the videos would freeze or crash when he pulled them up on the evening of Oct. 22, Murphy said, reading from previous testimony of former Danvers chief of police Patrick Ambrose. It took Baldassare four days after the attack to piece together the video that the Essex district attorney’s office eventually used as evidence against Chism, he said.
Murphy read previously impounded e-mails from school officials and DiNisco executives dating back nearly a year before the attack on Ritzer, which detailed the school’s struggles with its new surveillance system.
A Danvers High School IT employee first told then-assistant principal Keith Taverna of issues with the camera system in November of 2012, according to e-mails read out by Murphy.
A vendor wrote in an e-mail near the end of 2012 that they “have never seen a worse software package” and attempted fixes were “like putting lipstick on a pig,” according to Murphy.
By September 2013, Taverna wrote in an e-mail that the camera system was “down completely” and that “this is obviously very important for the security of the building,” Murphy read. A temporary workaround was developed, but Murphy said that it was only implemented in November.
The software was too new and Danvers High School’s computers too old to handle it, Murphy said.
“The software product chosen by the design team was never going to properly integrate with the hardware at Danvers High School,” he said.
If the cameras had been working properly, someone could’ve intervened to stop Chism, Murphy said.
Kenney, DiNisco’s attorney, countered the assertions, arguing that even if there were problems with the cameras, no one was assigned to monitor the live feed during the time of the events. No one would’ve seen what was going on in time to intervene, she said. Even if someone had seen the live video, Kenney said the medical examiner determined the injuries inflicted on Ritzer in the school’s bathroom were lethal.
Murphy read from an expert’s affidavit that claimed that there should’ve been alerts sent out by the system. Kenney contended there was no discussion of such alerts in the trial transcripts.
Judge John Lu did not issue a ruling on dismissal Tuesday.
The town attempted last month to close Tuesday’s hearing to the public, arguing it would jeopardize safety at the school, but Lu dismissed that motion, as The Salem News first reported.
Peggie and Tom Ritzer sat quietly in the back of the courtroom on Tuesday and declined to speak with a reporter after the hearing.
The Ritzers just want to do “all they can do” to promote school security, Murphy told reporters on the courthouse steps. The drawn-out legal battles have been “tough” on the Ritzers, Murphy said. “I can’t imagine being in their shoes.”