Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

October 31, 2013

Motive remains unclear in Ritzer murder

News staff and wire reports
The Andover Townsman

---- — It started with an all-too-common request that happens every day in every school all over the world: A teacher asking a student to stay after class for extra help.

But in this case, police say, that request led to the death of a young, popular teacher at the hands of one of her students.

On Tuesday, Oct. 22, according to police, Colleen Ritzer of Andover asked Phillip Chism, 14, of Danvers, to stay after class to get extra help in math.

While details remain sketchy because police records and court documents in the case have been sealed, it is evident from security cameras recovered from the high school that at some point, Ritzer went to the bathroom. She was followed five minutes later by Chism.

Police, responding to a missing-persons report on Ritzer, went to the school and found blood in the second-floor bathroom. Security footage and interviews with the suspect led police to recover her body in woods outside the school.

“It is apparent she was a homicide victim,” said Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett at a press conference the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 23.

It is known that investigators have searched Chism’s home. Law enforcement sources familiar with the case have provided some details, including that a box cutter was the apparent weapon.

Last Wednesday, Chism had a plea of not guilty entered on his behalf in the death of Ritzer. Salem District Court Judge Matthew Nestor ordered Chism held without bail, pending a probable cause hearing Nov. 22.

Court documents released after the hearing offer few new details, and do not confirm exactly how Ritzer was killed. The documents offer no motive for the slaying.

Defense lawyer Denise Regan filed a motion seeking funds for a mental health evaluation of Chism.

People who knew Chism said he was a quiet kid. They said he was a soccer player and a skateboarder, and a newcomer to town who had moved here over the summer from Tennessee.

In his few months in town, Chism had made a mark as a top player on the junior varsity soccer team.

If he was troubled, it wasn’t readily apparent to those at school.

Jean McCartin, a Danvers School Committee member, said the school has extensive programs to help ease the transition for new students like Chism. She said there was no information about Chism that would have raised any red flags.

“He just presented himself to us like any other student would,” McCartin said. “And that’s what I think is so hard for the administration right now. You know, their hearts are breaking because they just didn’t know he was in need, if he was in need. ... No one knows why he would have behaved in this way and done such a terrible thing.”

A school official in Clarksville, Tenn., a city of about 140,000 about 50 miles northwest of Nashville, said Chism attended Rossview Middle School for three years and graduated eighth grade last May. He attended school in Boca Raton, Fla., in fifth grade, and Burt Elementary School in Clarksville in fourth grade, said Elsie Shelton, chief communications officer for the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System.

Chis’s father is in the military.

Mark Nolan coached Chism on a travel soccer team in Clarksville for two years.

He said Chism was very passionate about the game, which he dove into out of admiration for a relative who played soccer professionally in Brazil. “He was there more than just to kick a ball,” Nolan said. “Some of the kids were there because mom and dad made them, but not him.”

In Danvers, he distinguished himself on the JV team as a leading scorer.