, Salem, MA

October 24, 2013

Student, 14, charged with murder in teacher's death


---- — DANVERS — It started Tuesday night as two cases of missing persons: one, a teenage boy who was last seen at a local movie theater; the other, a young teacher who hadn’t returned home from work and wasn’t answering her phone.

It became a murder investigation early yesterday when police found the teenager walking north on Route 1 in Topsfield and, then, the teacher’s body in a wooded area behind Danvers High School.

Philip Chism, 14, is now charged with first-degree murder in the death of Colleen Ritzer, 24, a math teacher at the school.

Chism was ordered held without bail by a Salem District Court judge yesterday. He will be held at Middleton Jail, according to court officials.

But few details of just what happened have been confirmed. An attempt by a prosecutor to outline the facts of the case was cut off by Chism’s lawyer, who objected to the police report being read in court.

What is known so far is that police, who were already looking for the missing teenager, a recent transplant from Tennessee, were called shortly after 11 p.m. because Ritzer had not returned home and wasn’t answering her cellphone.

Police secured the school and found blood in a second-floor bathroom, said District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett.

Then, just over an hour after Ritzer was reported missing, Topsfield police found Chism walking north on the southbound side of Route 1 in that town. He was taken into custody.

As a result of an interview with the teenager and a review of surveillance video from the school, Ritzer’s body was found in the woods near the school.

“It was apparent that she is a homicide victim,” Blodgett said yesterday morning.

According to a three-paragraph statement of facts filed with the court, the teacher and the student knew each other at school. A classmate said he was one of her students.

“Based on his statements and the corroborating evidence found at multiple scenes at the Danvers High School and surrounding wooded area, (Chism) was subsequently placed into custody and booked for murder,” said the statement.

Blodgett called the slaying “a terrible tragedy,” both for Ritzer’s family and for the school.

Police and prosecutors would not say exactly how Ritzer was killed, or at what time.

During Chism’s arraignment, where he was dressed in what appeared to be a white coverall, his attorney, Denise Regan, repeatedly tried to block the release of details in the case and also tried to convince Judge Matthew Nestor to allow Chism to hide from view behind a screen, saying the publicity would cause the teen “trauma.”

Nestor denied the request, telling Regan, “This is no longer a juvenile proceeding. It’s an adult process.”

Regan filed a series of motions yesterday, including a request for funds to hire a forensic psychologist, Thomas Grisso, to evaluate Chism to determine his competence, in anticipation of a possible defense in the case.

The judge granted the motion for public funds, $3,500, for the evaluation and also allowed her $2,000 to hire a defense investigator.

There has been no official statement regarding the cause of Ritzer’s death.

Although the formal language of the murder charge includes the phrase “did assault and beat,” that language is part of the text of the statute and can refer to any sort of physical contact that causes a death.

Carrie Kimball Monahan, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s office, said prosecutors are limited in what they can say about the case because of rules concerning publicity outside of court proceedings.

Chism, who according to court papers is 6 feet 2 inches tall and 148 pounds, kept his head bowed for most of the proceeding.

In court, seated near another public defender, were two women, one of whom is believed to be Chism’s mother, Dianna. The women left court without commenting.

Regan and a second public defender, Susan Oker, refused to answer questions about the case outside court.

In the time between the slaying and when he was reported missing, Chism went to the Hollywood Hits movie theater, which is near Route 128 and the Liberty Tree Mall, and saw the new Woody Allen film “Blue Jasmine,” a manager, Andrew Athens, said.

“The person who sold him the ticket remembered him,” said Athens, who was told that Chism wore a red sweatshirt.

There were not many patrons in the theater on a weekday afternoon, which also made it easier to recall Chism, said the manager.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.