World & Nation

Massachusetts town grieves for slain teacher

Massachusetts teacher killed
Danvers High School students and parents hold a candlelight vigil to mourn Colleen Ritzer, a 24-year-old math teacher who was killed this week. A student is charged in her death.
(Bizuayehu Tesfaye / Associated Press)

NEW YORK — When Prince William and Kate Middleton had their baby, Colleen Ritzer quipped on Twitter: “A new royal baby boy! I hope he likes math!”

She no doubt meant it. Ritzer, a 24-year-old math teacher, adored her subject, and she had a knack for passing on that enthusiasm to students at Danvers High School, where she was in her second year of teaching.

One of those students, Philip Chism, 14, faces a murder charge in the slaying of the popular teacher, a crime that has shaken Ritzer’s close-knit circle of friends, family and the Massachusetts town where she made her mark. Even the Danvers Police Department retweeted one of Ritzer’s steady stream of upbeat messages Thursday, a day after Chism’s arrest:

“No matter what happens in life, be good to people,” it read. “Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.”


It’s a legacy that Ritzer, an Andover, Mass., native, did indeed leave behind, say friends and relatives who took breaks from grieving to make sure the world knew the young woman with the sunny smile as more than a teacher turned murder victim.

“There is this whole other side of her, who she was as a person,” said Dan Yanofsky, who graduated from high school with Ritzer in 2007.

“In Danvers, she was Miss Ritzer,” he said. “To everyone else, she was Colleen.”

She was the Colleen who, in high school, zipped around in a little red car — “peppy, like her,” Yanofsky said. She liked to have upbeat music on when she drove and would skip the slow songs, even if they were on CDs she had mixed herself.


She was the Colleen whose bucket list included visiting the Santa Monica Pier and spending Christmas in New York City.

She was the Colleen who could be counted on, at a restaurant, to order a grilled cheese sandwich with sourdough bread, chicken fingers, or some other familiar comfort food no matter how thick or exotic the menu.

“It was one of the things we used to tease her about, and now we look on it fondly,” Yanofsky said.

The criminal complaint against Chism, who had moved to Danvers from Tennessee in the last year, lays out the allegations in stark terms. On Wednesday, it reads, the day after Ritzer disappeared, police interviewed Chism and viewed surveillance video from the school that led them to conclude Ritzer had been “assaulted and subsequently murdered.”

Her family had reported her missing the night before, when she did not return from work to the Andover home where she lived with her parents and two siblings. Police searched the school and found blood in a second-floor bathroom, said Jonathan Blodgett, district attorney of Essex County, which includes Danvers. Ritzer’s body was found in a wooded area behind the school.

The criminal complaint said Chism’s statements and “corroborating evidence” led police to charge the teenager.

Danvers police sent out a missing-person alert Tuesday evening after Chism failed to return home. “He was last seen at the Hollywood Hits Cinema … around 6:30 this evening,” it said.

The manager of the cinema, Scott Przybycien, said surveillance video showed that Chism showed up at the theater at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, paid $8 cash, and watched Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.” When it was over, about 6:15 p.m., he left, said Przybycien, who described Chism as wearing a clean sweat suit and not appearing nervous or upset.


That was before anyone knew Ritzer had been slain, and the alert prompted a flurry of online messages from Danvers residents concerned about a missing child. The messages of sympathy quickly turned to messages of fury after Chism was found after midnight walking along a highway, then charged in the teacher’s death.

Chism, described in the police report as 6-foot-2 and 148 pounds, appeared in court Wednesday and pleaded not guilty to murder. He was ordered held without bail until his next court appearance in November.

Local media quoted unidentified law enforcement sources as saying that the weapon was a box cutter. The body was taken from the second-floor bathroom to the woods behind the school in a recycling bin, according to some media reports.

In Danvers, a city once known as Salem Village and more famous for witchcraft trials than modern-day killings, the shock was felt far beyond the campus of Danvers High School. On Wednesday, hundreds of people attended a vigil for Ritzer in Danvers, while in Boston’s Fenway Park, fans assembled for Game 1 of the World Series observed a moment of silence in Ritzer’s honor.

“It’s a terrible tragedy for the entire Danvers community,” said Blodgett, the district attorney.

In a statement, Ritzer’s family asked for privacy to mourn “our amazing daughter and sister.”

Ritzer’s uncle, Peter Martellucci, spoke briefly to reporters Wednesday. “She was just a young, caring girl, who had the whole world ahead of her, and to be taken just so tragically is awful,” he said.

“I hate math … but she made it fun,” Christian Veatch, 17, a Danvers High student, told the Boston Herald. He described a pep talk Ritzer had given him one day in the school hallway. “In 20 minutes, she totally changed my attitude. It was amazing,” he said.


A statement from Salem State University, where Ritzer was a graduate student in the counseling program, described her as a “bright student” and “dedicated teacher who helped students realize potential.”

In 2011, she had graduated magna cum laude from Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a minor in psychology.

One of the Ritzer family’s neighbors, Mary Duffy, speculated that Ritzer’s love of math came from her mother, an accountant.

Indeed, math rarely was far from Ritzer’s mind. “Who hates math?!” she once tweeted. On her Twitter profile page, she described herself: “Math teacher often too excited about the topics I’m teaching.”

“Good luck to sophs/juniors on PSATs tomorrow,” she tweeted on Oct. 15. “I hope there’s a proof on there ... that would be so much more fun!”

As Memorial Day approached in May, she tweeted: “Long weekends are very highly ranked on my list of favorite things ... almost as high as proofs.”

She could also find time to poke fun at herself or simply muse on her day’s activities, whether baking an apple crisp, getting her wisdom teeth pulled or packing for a summer trip to St. Maarten.

At the end of the last school year, she also tweeted a farewell to her students:

“Thanks for a great year — I had so much fun. You will always stand out to me because you were my first group at DHS!”

“No worries,” one of them quickly replied. “You won’t be forgotten.”

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