SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 25, 2013

Student accused in teacher's death stayed after class, classmate says

BY PAUL LEIGHTON
STAFF WRITER

---- — DANVERS — It was the last class of the day at Danvers High School when the students in Colleen Ritzer’s Algebra 1 class got up to leave.

Philip Chism, a quiet freshman who had recently moved to town from Tennessee, stayed in his seat. According to classmate Rania Rhaddaoui, Ritzer had noticed Chism drawing in a notebook instead of taking notes, and asked him to stay after class.

”She came over and said, ‘I didn’t know you draw,’ and he said, ‘yes.’ Then later on she said, ‘Can you stay after with me?’” Rhaddaoui said yesterday. “Obviously, he stayed after because when I was leaving, he was still at his desk.”

Rhaddaoui said Ritzer had scheduled a test for Friday, but she was unsure exactly why the teacher asked Chism to stay after school.

What happened next is now the subject of a murder investigation into the death of Ritzer, a popular, 24-year-old teacher from Andover.

Chism, 14, was charged with first-degree murder Wednesday after police found blood in a second-floor bathroom at Danvers High and discovered Ritzer’s body in the woods nearby.

Authorities have not released any details about how Ritzer was killed or Chism’s alleged motive. Carrie Kimball-Monahan, a spokeswoman for Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, said the case is still being investigated.

According to law enforcement sources, Chism used a box cutter to kill the teacher inside a Danvers High School bathroom and wheeled her body out in a recycling bin.

On a video taken by a security camera inside the newly built school, Chism can be seen following Ritzer into the bathroom, the sources said.

Chism later emerged from the bathroom, then returned and walked back into the bathroom pushing a large, wheeled recycling container, according the sources. Chism also changed his clothes at one point.

Chism, who was the leading scorer on the junior varsity soccer team, did not show up at practice after school. He was next seen at around 4 p.m. at the Hollywood Hits movie theater near Route 128 in Danvers, where he watched the Woody Allen movie “Blue Jasmine,” according to a theater manager.

Chism was reported missing later that day, and eight of his fellow high school soccer players took to the streets to try to find him. At 12:30 a.m. on Wednesday, police found him walking along Route 1 in Topsfield.

In the meantime, police were called shortly after 11 p.m. Tuesday because Ritzer had not returned home and was not answering her cellphone. Police searched the high school and found blood in a second-floor bathroom.

After interviewing Chism and watching the surveillance video, police found Ritzer’s body in the woods near the school.

School offers counseling

The high school remained closed for classes yesterday, but grief counselors were on hand to offer comfort to students.

“It will be tough to go back to way things used to be,” said sophomore Matthew Caruccio. “Everyone will always remember such a crazy thing happened here. We will always remember her.”

Junior Becca Horn, who had Ritzer as a teacher last year, said it was comforting to gather at the school with friends and teachers.

“It was good to just be around everyone,” she said. “They said that it will be all right and that we need to be there for each other.”

While the feelings are still raw, she said students are probably ready to return to school. Classes were expected to resume today.

“If the teachers think it’s right, then it’s probably right just to transition,” she said. “It is better than sitting at home alone thinking about it.”

Kaitlyn Nash, 16, said students who knew and loved Ritzer were still trying to make sense of what happened. She said she found it particularly frightening that she had theater rehearsal Tuesday afternoon and was at the school when authorities believe Ritzer was killed.

”It’s just terrifying,” she said. “I know a lot of people don’t want to go back to school at this point. I know we have to, and we just need to get on with.”

A memorial to Ritzer continued to grow yesterday with flowers, candles, cards and stuffed animals. Many signs included inspirational sayings and quotes from the popular math teacher. One poster read: “Parallel lines have so much in common. It’s a shame they’ll never meet.”

An electronic sign also displayed an inspirational saying by pop artist Taylor Swift that Ritzer liked to tell students: “No matter what happens in life, be good to people. Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.”

Ritzer was described as an enthusiastic, caring teacher who stood outside her classroom and said hello to all students, whether they were in her classes or not.

”She was very approachable,” Rhaddaoui said. “She was always smiling. She always made the best of every situation.”

Ritzer’s family released a statement yesterday, asking the media to respect their privacy as they make arrangements “to celebrate Colleen’s vibrant life.”

Monahan said the district attorney’s office will present its case to a grand jury, which will determine whether to indict Chism on the murder charge. The case would then be moved to Superior Court.

Chism appeared briefly in Salem District Court Wednesday for arraignment on a murder charge and was ordered held without bail at Middleton Jail.

Ritzer was the second teacher allegedly killed by a student in the U.S. this week. A Sparks, Nev., middle school teacher was shot Monday, allegedly by a 12-year-old student.

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com. Material from the Associated Press was used in the report, and staff writers Tom Dalton and Jonathan Phelps contributed to this report.