Colleen Ritzer’s story: Her life, death, and legacy

Colleen Ritzer was a beloved math teacher at Danvers High School. “She was one of those teachers that would give you a smile every day,” Spencer Wade, a student, told Wicked Local. Sadly, Colleen Ritzer was killed in the school she gave so much to by a student she’d selflessly offered to help. 

When Danvers High School students returned to school after the killing, an electronic sign displayed a tweet posted by Ritzer several months prior: “No matter what happens in life, be good to people. Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.” 

This is Colleen Ritzer’s story.

Ritzer asked Philip Chism to remain after seeing him not taking class notes

During the last period on 22nd October 2013, Ritzer noticed Philip Chism drawing in his notebook rather than taking notes, Rania Rhaddaoui, Chism’s classmate, told WJLA. Rhaddaoui added that Ritzer asked Philip to remain after class. 

Ritzer attended Assumption College in 2011, where she was a math major and psychology minor with a concentration in secondary education. Colleen graduated magna cum laude. Ritzer worked hard to pass her enthusiasm for mathematics to students and to guide them through the tricky adolescent stage of their lives. 

Colleen asked Philip and another student to stay behind for extra help. The other student told authorities that Philip became upset after Ritzer mentioned Tennessee. Philip had recently moved to Massachusetts from Tennessee, where his parents were in the midst of a nasty divorce, relatives told authorities. 

The divorce might explain why Philip got upset at the mention of Tennessee. Colleen noticed Philip’s distress and changed the topic, the student said. 

It’s unclear whether Philip wanted to kill Colleen specifically, but he came to school ready to kill someone: Chism carried a box cutter, gloves, multiple changes of clothing, and a ski mask. 

Surveillance footage captured Colleen’s last moments alive and Philip following her into the bathroom

According to surveillance footage, Colleen walked from her classroom to the restroom six minutes before 3:00 p.m. Seconds later, cameras recorded Philip poking his head out of the classroom and looking down the hall. Chism went back into the classroom before exiting with his hood on, per CCTV footage. 

The video showed Chism putting on a pair of gloves as he walked into the bathroom. At 3:06 p.m., a female student entered the bathroom before leaving in a rush. She told investigators that she assumed someone was changing after seeing a pile of clothes on the floor and a person’s rear exposed. 

A minute later, Philip left the bathroom. According to CNN, Chism walked in and out of the building, changed his clothes, wore a ski mask, and dragged a recycling barrel into the bathroom. The outlet reported that several minutes later, Philip pushed the recycle bin outside the building and towards the parking lot. 

Tom and Peggie Ritzer, Colleen’s parents, reported their daughter missing around 30 minutes before midnight. By then, the police had asked residents to be on the lookout for Philip Chism, who’d been reported missing by his mother, Diana Chism, at 6:30 p.m. 

It later turned out that after disposing of Colleen’s body, Philip went home and changed clothes. He then ate at Wendy’s before watching a Woody Allen movie at a theater close to his home. 

Philip was apprehended following an encounter with a police officer in the early hours of 23rd October 2013. The officer found a bloodstained box cutter in Chism’s bag, an affidavit showed. “The girl,” Chism said when the police officer asked where the blood came from. 

Chism also had items belonging to Ritzer, including credit cards and women’s underwear. 

The attendance at Colleen’s burial showed how much the community loved her

The police discovered Colleen’s body in a wooded area adjacent to the school grounds. According to CNN, her body was in a ‘supine position covered with leaves and debris’. Colleen’s throat was slit, and it seemed she’d been raped with an object. 

The recycle bin in the surveillance footage was several yards away from Colleen’s body. A police officer unfolded a handwritten note discarded near the body, reading: “I hate you all.” Court papers revealed that Colleen’s body was ‘sexually staged’, per NBC News

“We are devastated and heartbroken by the details of the horrific circumstances surrounding the death of our beautiful daughter and sister, Colleen,” Ritzer’s family stated. “As a family, we continue to mourn Colleen’s passing and ask that the media respect our privacy during this very difficult time.”

Hundreds of people attended Ritzer’s wake on 27th October 2013, and hundreds more attended her funeral a day later. At the memorial service at St. Augustine Church in Andover, the pastor asked Colleen’s loved ones to cherish the times they’d shared with Colleen and find healing in their memories of her. 

“A lot of the guys are really shocked, a lot of guys are down, really upset,” Caio Silva, a Danvers High School student, told WJLA. “It’s just really sad. A lady that was really sweet and a kid who was really sweet. It just doesn’t really match up.”

An article on the National Memorial to Fallen Educators website shows why people loved Colleen. In the article, Colleen reminded people that everybody could make a difference:

“To those who struggle in any way, at any age, you make a difference. You have something great to offer to this world, and the world would be a different place without you. Your friends, family, peers, and acquaintances, would all be different people without you. Believe it or not, you have impacted all of them at some time, some point in your life.”

Philip was sentenced to serve at least 40 years in prison

In November 2013, a grand jury indicted Philip on charges of murder, aggravated rape, and armed robbery. “The indictments returned today detail horrific and unspeakable acts,” County District Attorney Jonathon Blodgett said, per ABC News. “This is the first step in a long process to secure justice for Ms. Ritzer and her family.”

A jury convicted Philip of murdering and raping Colleen. He was also convicted of armed robbery for stealing her underwear and credit cards. Philip was acquitted of a second rape committed using a tree branch in the woods where Chism put Ritzer’s body. 

During the trial, the defense admitted that Philip killed Ritzer, but they claimed he suffered from a severe mental illness that absolved him from criminal responsibility. A psychiatrist testifying for the defense argued that Philip was in the throes of a psychotic episode when he murdered Colleen. 

“This guilty verdict, while the beginning of justice for Colleen, is certainly no cause for celebration as there can never be true justice for the crime committed,” Thomas, Colleen’s father, said. “There remains a tremendous absence in our lives, one that sadly can never be replaced.”

During the sentencing phase, Colleen’s friends and family, who wore Ritzer’s favorite color, pink, gave emotional impact statements. Ritzer’s brother, Dan, asked the judge to ‘put this animal behind bars.’ 

Colleen’s mother said her daughter’s death had left her ‘so very broken’: “Now I isolate myself from people I love because pretending to be happy is so difficult. He [Chism] is pure evil and pure evil can never be rehabilitated.”

Salem Superior Court Judge David Lowy sentenced Philip to serve a minimum of 40 years in prison. “The crashing waves of this tragedy will never wane,” Lowy said. Philip’s mother, Diane, wept during her son’s sentencing. She said:

“Words can’t express the amount of pain and sorrow these past 2 1/2 years have been. However, there is no one who has suffered more than the Ritzer family. My utmost esteem, prayers and humble respect is with them today as they continue their journey to heal.”

Ritzer’s parents sued Danvers High School’s surveillance system installer

Peggie and Tom Ritzer filed a civil suit against Danvers Public Schools, the Town of Danvers, a cleaner who allegedly washed away evidence of Philip’s crime, and the school’s surveillance system installer. All the defendants, except for DiNisco Design Partnership, the surveillance system installer, removed themselves from the suit through motions to dismiss. 

The then-school resource officer testified that shortly before the murder, the district had completed a $71 million renovation of the school, including installing a sophisticated security system. 

Footage recorded by the system helped convict Philip. However, the Ritzers claimed the surveillance tools weren’t working properly on the day of the murder, nobody was monitoring the system, and it didn’t send alerts that could have helped Colleen. 

DiNisco Design Partnership said the system was working correctly, and the town chose not to have someone monitor the recordings. The Ritzers’ attorney said:

“They just want to make sure that systems that say they are going to provide these video surveillance systems are there to prevent, not just to capture and to see what happened after the fact, but to be able to respond to events as they are happening. So that teachers and students are safe.”

After the suit ended in August 2022, the Ritzer family and DiNisco design released a joint statement stating the purpose of the case wasn’t to assign blame; it was meant to answer questions about the security at Danvers High School. The statement read:

“School security is of paramount importance to the Ritzers and through the Colleen E. Ritzer Memorial Foundation, they will continue to emphasize the importance of improving school security for students and teachers. DiNisco Design joins the Ritzers in honoring Colleen’s memory.”

Peggie and Tom run the Collen E. Ritzer Memorial Foundation, which, among other things, gives scholarships to students. The foundation’s mission statement reads:

“The Colleen E. Ritzer Memorial Fund fosters a society of compassion with kindness as a motivating influence in all its endeavors. Renowned for her kindness, zeal for life, teaching, and love of family, the organization emulates Colleen’s compassion through scholarships, grants and other programs with kindness and education at their core.”

Colleen’s parents objected to a proposed law that allows murder convicts to seek parole

In Massachusetts, an adult convicted of first-degree murder faces a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole. The proposed ‘Act To Reduce Mass Incarceration’ seeks to amend that law by allowing first-degree murder convicts to request release from the state Parole Board. 

Tom and Peggie Ritzer oppose the proposed law. Per Inside Edition, Tom said: “Don’t do this. Don’t do this to the victims. Don’t do this to the families. Think about what you’ll put the families through … There’s no justice strong enough for someone who rapes and murders your daughter.”

Peggie insisted that ‘those who intentionally take an innocent life should not have an opportunity for parole.’ Tom said his family was denied the satisfaction of seeing Chism imprisoned for life. 

Under Massachusetts law, a person aged between 14 and 18 found guilty of first-degree murder faces a life sentence with the possibility of parole. Chism will be eligible for parole when he’s 54. Tom continued:

“The least you can ask for is life without parole. We didn’t get that. Don’t take it from the families that did. Now you want to give them all a chance for parole at 25 years? Really? Come on. This is infuriating and disrespectful to all the families and the victims. We deserve better than this. Justice must support the victims, not the criminals.”

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