Danvers teacher slain, quiet new student held
DANVERS — A quiet but amiable boy who had found his way in a new town by excelling
on the soccer field was accused Wednesday of killing a young, popular Danvers High School math teacher and dumping her body in the woods behind the school.
Philip Chism, 14, who moved to Danvers this summer from Tennessee, was ordered held without bail in the death of Colleen Ritzer, a 24-year-old from Andover recalled as a natural teacher deeply devoted to her students.
“She was one of those teachers that just wanted all the kids to succeed,” said Michael Maijenski, a student at Danvers High, where a candlelight vigil was held Wednesday night.
Authorities provided few details about the killing or possible motive. They said Chism knew Ritzer from school, but declined to say whether he was her student. The cause of death has not been conclusively established.
A law enforcement official briefed on the investigation said the teacher was stabbed and cut. It appeared, according to the official, that a box cutter was used. The official declined to speak for attribution, citing the sensitivity of the investigation.
In a police report filed in Salem District Court, where Chism was charged as an adult with first-degree murder , investigators said the teenager “assaulted and subsequently murdered” Ritzer, then disposed of her body. A not guilty plea was entered on his behalf.
The law enforcement official said surveillance footage from inside the school showed Chism pushing a recycling bin through the hall and outside the building. Authorities are trying to determine if Ritzer’s body was in the bin.
Evidence was found at multiple scenes at the school and the surrounding woods, police said. Police charged Chism after interviewing him and reviewing the footage.
Students at the vigil said they were mystified that such a violent crime could happen on school grounds while there were so many afterschool activities taking place.
Ritzer’s grief-stricken family said in a statement that they were mourning the death of “our amazing, beautiful daughter and sister.”
“Everyone that knew and loved Colleen knew of her passion, her teaching, and how she mentored each and every one of her students,” the family said.
At his arraignment, the tall, lanky teenager with close-cropped hair stood quietly, showing little emotion. A woman believed to be his mother left court without speaking to reporters.
A judge approved funds to have Chism evaluated for mental competency. In court records, Chism’s lawyer, Denise Regan, said the boy’s age alone “raises an issue of his competence.”
In June 2012, the US Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole for offenders under the age of 18 are unconstitutional.
Ritzer was reported missing at about 11:20 p.m. Tuesday when she did not return home and did not answer her cellphone. Police went to the high school, where they found blood in a second-floor bathroom, prompting a search of the grounds and the discovery of her body shortly before 3 a.m.
Last seen around 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at a movie theater near his house, Chism was found by police in neighboring Topsfield at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, walking north on the southbound side of Route 1.
Several of Chism’s soccer teammates said he mysteriously vanished Tuesday afternoon, missing the team practice at 4 p.m. and a team dinner at 6. Teammates last saw the youth running away from the practice field, breathlessly telling them he had something he needed to take care of.
The students said Chism was an amiable, hard-working boy who loved soccer, and who had bonded quickly with his new team. He was the leading scorer on the junior varsity team, they said.
Chism moved to Danvers with his mother and sisters, friends said. His father has remained in Tennessee and has no contact with him, according to his teammates.
The teenager had attended school in the Clarksville-
Montgomery County school system in Tennessee since fourth grade, except for one year in Florida. He left in May, a school spokeswoman said.
Mark Nolan, Chism’s former soccer coach in Tennessee, described him as a strong athlete who never gave him trouble in practice or games.
“He was quiet, but when he scored, he had the biggest grin,” Nolan said.
Nolan said Chism’s parents came to his games as often as they could. He recalled that the boy’s father was in the military and often assigned elsewhere, but came to watch his son when he could.
“The dad did show up when he wasn’t deployed,” Nolan said. “And sometimes he’d come in his uniform.”
At Chism’s Danvers home, a man declined comment. Neighbors said the family had moved in this summer and described Chism as a normal, somewhat shy teenager.
“It’s just terrible,” said Vickie Newton, a neighbor. “I feel so bad for the poor woman.”
Chism has two sisters, according to friends and neighbors.
Newton said she came home from work around 1 a.m. and noticed that several cars were parked outside the family’s home.
Amber Lowell, a junior at Danvers High who lives near Chism, said he was quiet but had a few friends on the bus and seemed happy at school.
“He was always laughing and talking” to his friends, she said.
Ritzer graduated from Andover High School in 2007 and earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Assumption College four years later, graduating magna cum laude. She had taken graduate courses at Salem State University.
Christian Snyder, 14, a student in Ritzer’s algebra class at Danvers High, said he could not imagine anyone bearing her ill will.
“She’s probably the nicest teacher I’ve ever had in school in my life,” he said.
Jennifer Berger, Ritzer’s friend since kindergarten, said she loved teaching and never mentioned feeling unsafe or threatened at work.
“I just don’t understand it, and I don’t think I ever will,” she said, her voice breaking.
Danvers officials closed all public schools in town because of the investigation, calling parents about 4:45 a.m. Wednesday. The news left many students and parents on edge.
According to a statement from Superintendent Lisa Dana, all schools will operate on a normal schedule Thursday except the high school, which will be open only from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. for students and families, and grief counselors will be present. Danvers High will resume its normal schedule Friday, Dana said.
There will also be an informational meeting for parents at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the school’s field house, the statement said.
“We are all terrified,” said Caitlin McBride, a junior. “It’s very scary. No one will ever look at this school the same way anymore.”
Freshman Connor Barnes, 15, said Chism was quiet and seemed to have a hard time making new friends. He showed little interest in friendly small talk, he said.
At the vigil Wednesday night, which hundreds of people attended, a group of about 10 students lit candles and left signs and other items.
The students carried a basket labeled “ribbons for Ritzer,” which contained a number of small ribbons in what they said was the teacher’s favorite color, pink. Kaitlyn Nash, 16, said it was her mother’s idea to make ribbons to hand out at the vigil and to accept donations to pass on to Ritzer’s family.
“Danvers is so small that everyone knows everyone,” said Melissa Litchfield, 16.
Litchfield said she was never one of Ritzer’s students, but she had a locker across the hall from the teacher’s classroom, and Ritzer always greeted her warmly.
“She was just so happy all the time,” Litchfield said.
Patricia Wen, Maria Cramer, and Kathy McCabe of the Globe staff and correspondents Jasper Craven, Melissa Hanson, Jeremy C. Fox, and Nicholas Jacques contributed to this report.