DANVERS, Mass. — Nearly a thousand people gathered at a vigil in this Boston suburb on Wednesday evening to remember the young high school math teacher murdered a day earlier.
The body of Colleen Ritzer, 24, was found in woods near Danvers High School Tuesday night, shortly before police arrested a 14-year-old student, Philip Chism, in connection with her murder.
Chism has been charged, as an adult, with first-degree murder, though authorities have released few details about what happened or why.
Classes were cancelled in Danvers on Wednesday, as part of the high school was still an active crime scene. In the evening students returned to campus, tears in their eyes, to light candles and leave flowers, stuffed animals and homemade signs at a makeshift memorial. They then gathered in a parking lot with parents, teachers, school administrators and the public.
Jenna Glazier, a 16-year-old junior and former student of Ritzer, remembered a generous, dedicated and helpful math teacher who often told students, “Yay, proofs!” in reference to an exercise that some begrudged.
“She just always had a huge smile on her face, and she was always willing to help everyone,” said Kelsey Brooks Jr., a 16-year-old junior.
“She loved teaching,” said Kara Behen, a 14-year-old freshman. “She was just ... amazing.”
Behen last saw Ritzer on Tueday afternoon, during the 1 p.m. to 1:55 p.m. algebra class she also shared with Chism. Nothing seemed amiss between the two, she said, though Chism had become withdrawn over the past couple weeks.
“He used to do group work, and now he sits alone,” she said, adding that he rarely said much to classmates and often listened to headphones.
Chism was first reported missing to police Tuesday afternoon, when the member of the school's junior varsity soccer team, who had recently moved from Tennessee, did not come home. Several hours later, police received a separate report, about 11:20 p.m., that Ritzer had not come home from work.
Police discovered blood in a second-floor bathroom of the high school before finding Ritzer's body. Chism was discovered just after midnight, walking along a busy highway.
In her nearby hometown of Andover, where Ritzer still lived, friends remembered her cheerful personality and devotion to her students.
“She was just an amazing person who loved life,” said Jennifer Berger, who graduated with Ritzer from Andover High School in 2007. The two went to elementary and middle school together, as well, and hung out last weekend, watching the Red Sox game on television.
“She was so kind and caring,” Berger said. “She could find joy in the littlest things in life. If she was having a bad day, she would find a quote from a song that would turn it around.
“I just want people to know how amazing she was. ... She was my go-to best friend. I just can’t believe she is gone,” she said, before breaking down into tears.
Ritzer had always wanted to become a teacher. “In our fifth-grade yearbook, when it says what do you want to be when you grow up, she said teacher,” Berger remembered. “She loved her job - loved it."
Ritzer was also an ice-hockey nut. Though she never played, she enjoyed watching her younger sister, Laura, who is still in high school.
“She loved her little sister and liked supporting Laura, so she would go to her games,” Berger said. Ritzer also has a younger brother, Daniel, now a student at the University of Connecticut.
Ritzer was a thoughtful friend who sent regular notes to Berger when the two were away from each other at college — Berger at Bentley College near Boston, and Ritzer at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass.
“They were random and basically said, ‘I miss you and can’t wait to hang out with you again.’ Simple little things like that,” she said.
Berger knew something was wrong Tuesday night when Ritzer’s mother called because she hadn't been home. Then, yesterday morning, Ritzer’s parents delivered the devastating news.
“I didn’t think it was real,” said Berger. “Things like this shouldn’t happen to good people like her.”
As cars streamed to the Ritzer home in Andover, family members were mostly tight-lipped. An uncle, Dale Webster, brought a statement typed on a white piece of paper to reporters waiting outside.
“At this time, we are mourning the tragic death of our amazing, beautiful daughter and sister,” it read. “Everyone that knew and loved Colleen knew of her passion for teaching and how she mentored each and every one of her students. We would like to ask everyone to respect our privacy at this most difficult time. Thank you all for your thoughts and prayers.”