CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — As grieving students returned to class for the first time since a beloved Danvers High School math teacher was killed, acquaintances of the 14-year-old murder suspect in his Tennessee hometown, including his former sweetheart, described a bright, well-behaved boy who was devastated when his family moved to Massachusetts this summer.
Even as his mother prepared to drive the family back to her home state of Massachusetts in a beat-up van with no air conditioning, Philip Chism held out hope that she would reconsider, friends and neighbors said Friday. Their interviews shed light on the lanky teenager’s life before coming to Danvers, and the distress the move may have caused.
He told Hannah Walker that he loved her. But she knew Chism was leaving, the 14-year-old said in an interview at her Clarksville home.
“Hearing that kind of made me happy,” Walker said while sitting in her living room with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, “but it broke my heart at the same time. Because after a week, or two, or three, I was never going to see him again.”
Chism stands accused of killing his 24-year-old teacher, Colleen Ritzer, on Tuesday, and dumping her body in the woods behind the school. He has been charged as an adult and is being held without bail. Law enforcement officials have said Ritzer was stabbed and cut with a box cutter, but have not revealed a possible motive. Authorities declined to discuss the case Friday, and a search warrant filed by investigators was impounded at Salem District Court.
The charges have stunned those who knew Chism growing up in Clarksville, about an hour northwest of Nashville. Many struggle to square the allegations with their memory of Chism as a sweet, polite boy.
“He was a mild-mannered gentleman,” said Al Grant, who lived across the street from the family; his daughter was close with Chism’s younger sister. “You can just bust your head wondering what’s gone wrong.”
At the brick apartment complex where Chism’s family lived, residents said they often saw the boy outside, skateboarding or playing soccer or basketball, often with his two younger sisters. He had many friends and was well known in the neighborhood. He seemed happy, and wasn’t known to start trouble, friends and neighbors said.
“Philip was quiet,” said Jonquinette Carter, 15. “He didn’t bother nobody.”
Yet others sensed a sadness about him, an unease that may have been linked to family discord and the impending move.
“It’s kinda like an aura around a person,” said Marcus Evans, 19, who lives in the neighborhood. “He didn’t like moving a lot . . . family problems may have gotten to him.”
Records show that Philip’s parents, Diana and Stacy Chism, filed for divorce in 2001, three years after being married. He was just 2. In the divorce agreement, Stacy Chism’s time with the children was to be restricted due to “physical abuse, sexual abuse, or a pattern of emotional abuse.” The filing also asserted the father was guilty of adultery and “such cruel and inhuman treatment or conduct towards the spouse as renders cohabitation unsafe and improper.”
Both parents signed the separation papers, but their divorce was never finalized, according to court records.
Neither parent could be reached for comment. No one answered the door at the Danvers home where Diana Chism lives, and Stacy Chism, who served in the Army National Guard in Tennessee from 1994 to 2002, and is now believed to live in Florida, could not be contacted. Philip’s soccer teammates in Danvers said he was not in contact with his father.
Walker’s mother, Laura, said that after they heard the news about Chism, she texted his mother, but has not heard back. Laura Walker’s boyfriend, David Fuller, said Chism’s mother was always worried about money, and had postponed their move north because she could not afford to have her van fixed.
An uncle, Terence Chism Blaine, said Philip is a good kid who could not have killed anyone. “They probably have mistaken identity,” he said in a telephone interview. “I believe what will happen is they will clear him of these charges.”
Blaine also said he thought it was unfair that his nephew is being charged as an adult.
Hannah Walker said Chism never spoke of problems at home or about being unhappy. She met his father just once, and only briefly. But it was long enough to see a strong family resemblance, she said.
Chism had attended school in the Clarksville-Montgomery County school system in Tennessee since fourth grade, except for one year in Florida.
The family left Clarksville in July. Acquaintances in Danvers said he seemed to make a few friends, and was a leading scorer on the junior varsity soccer team. Chism and Walker soon fell out of touch, and she wonders how things went so wrong.
“My heart breaks for the teacher’s family,” she said. “My heart breaks for Philip and his family, too.”
Walker has racked her brain, but cannot reconcile the person on TV in a prison jumpsuit with the boy she knew.
“Philip has never been the guy to get angry. He takes all his anger out on his skateboarding. Someone doesn’t just wake up one day and say, ‘I’m gonna kill my teacher.’ ”
Walker recalled how she became friends with Chism in sixth grade, when they were put in a group to read the same book. Chism always read ahead, she recalled. By the next year they had grown close, and walked home together. She would steal his hat so he’d come looking for it. Their talks were the highlight of her day.
“I know people are like, ‘You’re only in middle school, you’re too young for love.’ But I fell in love with him over a long period of time,” she said. “He lit me up, honestly.”
Once, on a rainy day in eighth grade, Walker took Chism by the hands when they got off the bus and asked him to dance. He laughed, but then twirled her, sending the young couple spinning through the pouring rain.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” she said.
Chism’s classmates in Danvers have said Ritzer had asked him to stay after class so she could help him prepare for a test. Students saw Chism there for about an hour after school ended. The teen was later seen alone at a movie theater before he was picked up by police in Topsfield just after midnight, walking along Route 1.
At Danvers High, students said they were struggling to come to terms with Ritzer’s death, and described shuffling through the day at half speed.
Olivia Perez, 14, who was in Ritzer’s algebra class, said she fought through tears most of the day, as did many of her friends. “It was just so hard not seeing her,’’ she said.
Perez wore a pink flower in her hair in memory of Ritzer, who had told students that pink was her favorite color.
The day began with a schoolwide meeting where students were reminded that counselors were on hand if they needed to talk with someone. Students said they spent much of the day discussing what had happened, or reviewing material already taught.
“Just trying to get by — it was kind of emotionally draining, a lot to take in,’’ said Brian Dos, 16, who had a class with Ritzer last year.
For many, the day dragged, and the school felt unfamiliar.
“It was really slow and kind of sad,” echoed Emily Nestor, 14, who took English with Chism. “No one really knew what to do.”
Ritzer’s family on Friday announced the formation of a scholarship fund to benefit Andover High School graduates who pursue a career in teaching. Donations to the Colleen Ritzer Memorial Scholarship can be made through the Essex County Community Foundation.
“We are simply overwhelmed by the many generous offers of so many who wish to support a lasting legacy for Colleen,’’ the family said in a statement. “We believe that this scholarship fund is an appropriate way to honor Colleen’s tireless and dedicated work to pursue such a worthy and rewarding profession.’’
The family also announced funeral arrangements for the Andover resident. Calling hours at St. Augustine Church in Andover will be held on Sunday from 3:30 to 8:30 p.m. A funeral Mass will be said Monday at 10 a.m. at St. Augustine’s.Evan Allen can be reached at email@example.com. Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org