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Investigators tell of finding body of slain Danvers math teacher

Philip Chism appeared in Salem Superior Court for a hearing on Jan. 16.
Philip Chism appeared in Salem Superior Court for a hearing on Jan. 16.(Ken Yuszkus/Associated Press/File)

SALEM — State Police troopers who investigated the 2013 killing of a Danvers High School math teacher gave graphic accounts Thursday of her injuries and described evidence suggesting she was raped, allegedly by the freshman who is accused of killing her.

Trooper Steven Buccheri wiped his eyes in Essex Superior Court while discussing neck wounds found on 24-year-old Colleen Ritzer.

Prosecutors allege that on Oct. 22, 2013, Philip D. Chism, then 14, killed Ritzer in a school bathroom, then put her body into a recycling bin and dragged it into woods near the school.

Buccheri said the medical examiner determined that Ritzer suffered 16 stab wounds to her neck. He also testified about a witness who inadvertently entered the bathroom while Ritzer and Chism were inside.

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“She saw someone naked from the waist down bent over at the waist,” he said.

The witness has been identified in court documents as a student. She told police she assumed somebody was changing clothes, prompting her to leave, according to a search warrant affidavit made public in November 2013.

Ritzer was seen headed to the bathroom about 2:54 p.m. followed by a hooded Chism, who was wearing gloves, according to a police description of school security footage. He emerged from the bathroom 12 minutes later alone, the affidavit said.

On Thursday another trooper, Detective Lieutenant Michael Holleran, said investigators found Ritzer’s body covered in leaves, sticks, and debris about 3 a.m. on Oct. 23, 2013. He said her neck wound was “very deep” and her face looked mottled and purplish-red.

Buccheri and Holleran took the stand during the final day of witness testimony in a hearing on a defense request to have some of the evidence collected by police thrown out of Chism’s upcoming murder trial. Chism’s mother and Ritzer’s family members attended the proceeding.

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Chism gave statements to police in Danvers and Topsfield, where officers had found him walking along Route 1 shortly after midnight on Oct. 23, 2013, hours after he and Ritzer were reported missing.

Chism’s lawyers say the teen never gave up his Miranda rights during initial interactions with investigators and that he invoked his right to remain silent.

Officers, they said, manipulated his mother, Diana, into encouraging the teen to speak with them. The defense contends that jurors should not be allowed to consider statements Chism allegedly made or evidence collected during those early encounters with police.

Chism, now 16, is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated rape and is being tried as an adult. He has pleaded not guilty.

Holleran, who is executive officer of the State Police Crime Scene Services Section, said he arrived at Danvers High at about 2 a.m. on Oct. 23, 2013. He said he and two others were searching the woods near the school when one of his colleagues said, “I see a toe.”

“I moved over to my left to where she had [a] different angle and I observed a toe sticking up out of the leaves that was painted with polish,” said Holleran.

Ritzer was pronounced dead and investigators removed leaves and other debris covering her body, he said.

He said sperm cells were recovered from Ritzer’s body and tested, revealing Chism’s DNA.

Chism denied sexually assaulting Ritzer in an interview with police, according to testimony given Jan. 15.

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Officers have previously testified that Chism became angered by a “trigger word” during his encounter with Ritzer. They said he described giving her a karate chop that left her unconscious, and twice dragging a box cutter across her neck, inflicting a fatal wound the second time.

Steve Baldassare, a school resource officer with the Danvers Police Department, was the last person to take the witness stand Thursday, discussing footage recorded by school surveillance cameras.

Aside from recording Ritzer and Chism entering the bathroom, a camera recorded the teen entering and leaving with a recycling bin, Baldassare said. Another camera showed Chism wheeling the bin near some Dumpsters outside the school, he said.

A recording of a police interview conducted last February with Chism’s history teacher was entered into evidence. During the interview, Pamela Foss recalled Chism as a quiet student who performed well on a quiz the day Ritzer was killed.

“He did a good job on it,” she said. “His mind was there that day for that quiz.”


Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.