SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

December 31, 2013

Tragedy and hope in 2013

Top stories of the year a mix of highs and lows


The Salem News

---- — It was a year of change, stained by murder.

“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones,” according to Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” Likewise, it was evil that made the strongest impact on the North Shore. Not only were our people on the scene of April’s horrifying Boston Marathon bombings, but a few days later, a former Salem State University student, MIT police officer Sean Collier, was said to have been shot to death by the bombers.

Homicide came closer still with the October slaying of a popular, young Danvers teacher, Colleen Ritzer, allegedly by a 14-year-old student. Not unlike the bombing, this event, so brutal and so inexplicable, rocked this community and the world beyond.

Politics brought natural changes this past year, with Beverly selecting Mike Cahill to take over for the retiring, veteran Mayor Bill Scanlon and Republican Leah Cole shocking the experts by winning a three-way race for state representative in Peabody. Salem’s school board produced more surprises when two incumbents got bumped by newcomers.

If the Bard was correct regarding evil, however, he may have underestimated the value of the good. Beverly’s Angie Miller made the point, singing her way to the finals of the national “American Idol” program and reminding us all what can lift a community’s heart and take it past tragedy.

Beverly, Salem lead way in church reorganization

Salem and Beverly were in the first wave of a sweeping reorganization announced in January by the Archdiocese of Boston.

Rather than close Catholic parishes as it did in 2004, a controversial move that sparked protests, the archdiocese decided it will group its 288 parishes into 135 “collaboratives,” or small clusters, a process that will take several years.

The archdiocese formed collaboratives to strengthen parishes at a time of fewer priests and dwindling resources. It is the foundation of a long-range plan to grow the church through evangelization.

Salem and Beverly were in the first group of a dozen communities to form collaboratives, which will have one pastor, a pastoral team, a parish council and a finance committee.

Salem’s four parishes — St. Anne, Immaculate Conception, St. John the Baptist and St. James — are working together as a group. It’s the same in Beverly, where St. Mary, St. Margaret and St. John the Evangelist make up a single collaborative.

By summer, new pastors arrived to head the collaboratives: the Rev. Daniel Riley came to Salem from Weymouth; and the Rev. Mark Mahoney moved from Topsfield to Beverly.

Cole wins rep seat for GOP

Republican candidate Leah Cole defied the odds in April, winning a special election in Peabody to succeed the late Joyce Spiliotis in the state House of Representatives.

The results shocked political observers, but it likely wouldn’t have happened if Cole hadn’t been running against two Democrats.

City Councilor and lapsed Democrat Dave Gravel entered the race as an independent, pulling votes, in a light turnout, from nominated Democrat and school board member Beverley Griffin Dunne. Between the two, they garnered more votes. But the youthful Cole won with a plurality, gained with the strong support of GOP party regulars, many from outside of Peabody.

She was not long on Beacon Hill before she demonstrated the difference a political party can make, voting against a tax hike — on computer services and gasoline — that passed with strong Democratic support. Legislative leaders later backtracked, ditching the computer tax when they realized the harm it might have done to one of the state’s leading industries.

Cole, who had no previous experience in government, is expected to run for re-election this year, with a stronger claim on office as an incumbent but against Democrats who believe she will be vulnerable given a one-on-one race.

Marathon bombings hit North Shore

The savage act of hate and violence that was the Boston Marathon bombings reverberates. What’s remarkable is how often people have turned that evil into something positive.

Many locals were in the vicinity of the two blasts. Danvers High coach Mike Chase and custodian Dan Marshal, for example, plunged into the bloody scene. Chase helped carry a child to an ambulance. Marshall was among those fighting vainly to save 8-year-old Martin Richard of Dorchester.

“It’s extremely sad,” said Marshall. “I wish I could’ve helped more.”

In the days that followed, thousands rallied to support the victims. Bill Richard, a Salem High graduate, not only lost his son, his wife suffered brain damage, and his daughter was severely injured. A Salem Five fund was part of a national effort to support those maimed by the attack.

Stephen Woolfenden of Salem was critically injured, while son Leo, a preschooler, was also hit while waiting to see mom, Amber, cross the finish line. Weeks later, area runners held a “fun run” to honor them, and another fund was established.

Salem State graduate and MIT police officer Sean Collier was killed days after the marathon, allegedly by the bombers. He was remembered posthumously, his name attached to an award at MIT. Salem fire Capts. Dennis Levasseur and Kevin Koen were recognized at the state Firefighters of the Year Awards for responding at the scene.

When a state trooper, Sgt. Sean Murphy, was punished for answering Rolling Stone’s glamor shot of one of the accused killers by leaking one depicting his ignoble capture, Marbleheader Lisa Beloff rallied behind Murphy with a website.

It would be impossible to name all those who have tried to help. For the remainder of the year, security was stepped up at Fourth of July celebrations and on Halloween in Salem. But remarkably, as the months wore on, the streets and fields of the North Shore filled with the shouts and laughter of those meant to be terrorized.

Angie Miller scores big on ‘Idol’

Angie Miller’s ascent on “American Idol” captivated local viewers and introduced the 19-year-old singing phenom and Beverly High graduate to an audience of millions. She made it to the popular talent show’s top three before being eliminated.

Throughout her run, Miller earned accolades from the judges for her performances of hit songs — including the rendition of “I’ll Stand by You” she dedicated to Boston in the aftermath of the city’s marathon bombing — as well as her own piano-backed compositions.

Miller’s success brought her and her potential music career a great deal of visibility; it also brought Beverly itself before a national spotlight when the show made an emotional visit in early May, during which Miller performed for a crowd of 15,000 at her old high school.

The Essex Street resident turned down three college scholarships in favor of auditioning for “American Idol.” Her achievements are all the more pronounced given she suffers from hearing loss in both ears.

Brimbal Avenue plan sparks controversy

A transportation project that had been in the planning stages for years suddenly became the No. 1 topic in Beverly, drawing packed public hearings and sparking a rare upcoming special election.

The Brimbal Avenue interchange project is a multimillion 2-phase plan to improve traffic around Brimbal Avenue and Route 128 and open up hundreds of acres of land to potential development.

Mayor Bill Scanlon has touted the project as one of the keys to the city’s future because of its ability to generate property taxes that will pay for city services.

But Scanlon, who had been working on the plans for more than a decade, was caught off-guard by the vehement opposition of neighbors, who called the project oversized and said it will destroy the area’s quality of life.

Residents secured more than 3,500 petition signatures to force a special election on Feb. 8. If voters overturn a decision by the City Council to rezone a parcel of land on Brimbal Avenue, the entire project could be scuttled.

Ethics Committee closes Tierney investigation

The year 2013 was when Salem Congressman John Tierney finally could put behind himself questions about payments his wife received from her brother for managing his financial and household affairs when he moved to Antigua.

Or was it?

On Sept. 11, the U.S. House Committee on Ethics voted unanimously to close the matter, saying the “evidence was inconclusive” as to whether payments to Patrice Tierney were gifts or income, and that the evidence available “does not warrant a finding that Representative Tierney intentionally mischaracterized the nature of the payments for financial disclosure purposes.”

Prosecutors have said Patrice Tierney’s brothers, Robert and Daniel Eremian, ran an illegal gambling business in Antigua. While Robert Eremian was living out of the country, Patrice Tierney managed a bank account for him here. In addition to taking care of Robert Eremian’s personal affairs, she also wrote checks to herself from that account that she characterized as gifts.

Whether the whiff of scandal will impact Tierney’s political future remains to be seen. The Democrat faces a primary fight this year from Seth Moulton, a Marblehead native, Iraq War veteran and businessman; and from Marisa DeFranco, a Middleton immigration attorney who has also run for U.S. Senate.

Tierney may also face a rematch with former state Senate Majority Leader Richard Tisei, the Wakefield Republican who narrowly lost his bid for Tierney’s seat in 2012. Tisei has reportedly filed paperwork for an exploratory run for Congress.

Tierney later announced he was setting up a fund to cover legal expenses from the House Ethics Committee’s three-month investigation, for which he is responsible.

Stabbing sends Salem State into lockdown

Salem State University went into lockdown Sept. 25 after a double stabbing on a college shuttle bus.

Police swarmed the campus that Wednesday while students and staff sheltered in place inside buildings. After a few hours and no sign of the suspect, the lockdown was lifted. Later that day, a former student was arrested in upstate New York after his car broke down.

Timothy G. Wells, 25, of Woburn, a Salem State student on voluntary leave, was indicted last month on two counts of attempted murder and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.

Witnesses told police that the suspect rode several loops around campus on the shuttle before stabbing a female passenger for no apparent reason. The bus driver was stabbed when he tried to intervene, police said. Both injuries were minor, police said.

Salem police said they had been involved with Wells before this incident, arresting him in early September for trespassing at a city field. In that case, a therapist issued a mental health order, fearing Wells would harm himself, police said.

Wells’ next court date is Jan. 10.

Danvers teacher slain

Oct. 22 was seemingly a typical fall afternoon at Danvers High School, with students playing on brand-new athletic fields or getting extra help with coursework.

But within hours, two families were frantically searching for their children — 14-year old student Philip Chism and 24-year-old math teacher Colleen Ritzer. Then came the horrific discoveries, one by one. Ritzer’s car, cold and dark, in the parking lot. Blood in a second-floor bathroom. And then, Ritzer’s body, partially covered in leaves and debris, in woods next to the school.

Next to her body was a note: “I hate you all.” Prosecutors say that note was left by Chism, who is charged with brutally killing, raping and robbing the popular young teacher.

Chism had moved with his mother to Danversport from Tennessee during a contentious divorce. But if there were signs of trouble, no one so far has admitted to having seen them. Chism is currently being held without bail in a Department of Youth Services facility, awaiting trial as an adult on the murder charge and as a youthful offender on the rape and robbery counts.

Ritzer’s family, friends and colleagues have struggled to cope, seeking ways to honor her memory, including establishing a scholarship fund in her name. Earlier this month, a pink star was hung on the Danvers Christmas tree. Last week, residents along Dascomb Road in Ritzer’s hometown of Andover tied bright pink ribbons to their mailboxes in tribute to the teacher.

Upsets mark Salem city election

The November city election produced dramatic changes on both the City Council and School Committee.

In what may have been the biggest upset, Heather Famico, a 27-year-old teacher, soundly defeated longtime Ward 2 Councilor Mike Sosnowski, whose name had been mentioned as a future mayoral hopeful.

Beth Gerard’s upset of Paul Prevey in the Ward 6 council race was just as stunning, although this one had to go to a recount. In another shocker, newcomer Elaine Milo finished first in the councilor-at-large field. The three women, all first-time candidates, will join a formerly all-male City Council next month.

In other races, newcomer David Eppley won the open Ward 4 seat, and Ward 1 Councilor Bob McCarthy beat back a challenge by former Councilor Steve Pinto. Council President Jerry Ryan failed in his attempt to move from a ward to an at-large seat.

Over at the School Committee, Rachel Hunt, the head of school at Salem Academy Charter School, and Patrick Schultz, the owner of Howling Wolf Taqueria and a former educator, won seats on the school board in their first runs for office. Hunt topped the ticket.

While veteran member Brendan Walsh won re-election, two of his colleagues, Janet Crane and Lisa Lavoie, were defeated.

Scanlon steps down in Beverly

Boston wasn’t the only Massachusetts city to lose its longtime mayor in 2014.

After 18 years in office, the longest mayoral tenure in the city’s history, Beverly Mayor Bill Scanlon decided not to run for re-election. That decision opened the door for Mike Cahill, a former state representative and City Council president who had come close to knocking off Scanlon two years ago.

Cahill defeated City Councilor Wes Slate in the Nov. 5 election, promising to usher in an era of openness and collaboration in city government. He will be sworn into office on Jan. 6.

Scanlon will leave behind a legacy of significant improvements in the city. Under his watch, the city eliminated demographic inequities in the schools, improved its parks and playgrounds, resolved decades-long flooding problems, renovated the elementary schools and built a new high school, all while putting the city on sound financial footing after inheriting an $8 million deficit.

Using tax breaks as an incentive, Scanlon also helped with the transformation of the former United Shoe factory into Cummings Center office park, the city’s largest taxpayer.

Staff writers Alan Burke, Tom Dalton, Neil H. Dempsey, Ethan Forman, Paul Leighton and Julie Manganis contributed to this report.