Emails point to concerns over Danvers surveillance system prior to Ritzer murder

·4 min read

Jun. 22—DANVERS — In the months before Danvers High School math teacher Colleen Ritzer was murdered, in October 2013, the state of the security system at the newly renovated Danvers High was a topic of significant concern, according to emails described in court Tuesday.

"I've never seen a worse software package," wrote an employee of a subcontractor, American Service, in one email in 2012. "It's like putting lipstick on a pig."

In another email, in February 2013, the project architect, Richard Rice, acknowledged having "great difficulty" in getting the system to work.

The following month, then-assistant superintendent Keith Taverna said in an email that the system "seems to be shaky at best" and "incapable of meeting specifications."

By July there was still no solution, just "all kinds of finger-pointing going on," lawyer Dan Murphy told Lawrence Superior Court Judge John Lu during a hearing Tuesday afternoon.

The hearing was on a motion by DiNisco Design Partners, the sole remaining defendant in a wrongful death suit filed by Peggie and Tom Ritzer, of Andover, to dismiss the case prior to trial.

It's a hearing Danvers officials did not want to be held in an open courtroom. Earlier this year, they took the unusual step of asking to re-enter the case for the sole purpose of seeking to have all of the documents related to the hearing sealed, The Salem News first reported.

Then, at the request of now-retiring superintendent Lisa Dana, they went even further, asking that the entire hearing be closed to the public. Lu denied that request.

John Davis, a lawyer for the district, had argued that revealing any details of the school's security system would endanger the safety of students.

Much of Tuesday's hearing on the architect's motion for summary judgment dealt with the security — or lack thereof — in place in 2013.

And the school came in for blame from both sides, with DiNisco attorney Katherine Kenney saying that it fulfilled its contract to design a "live view" camera system with motion activated cameras.

"The town could have live-monitored if they chose to do so," Kenney told the judge. "They did not."

She said only the town of Danvers was in a position to decide whether the cameras would be live-monitored.

Instead, she argued, Taverna and former school resource officer Steve Baldassare said in depositions that the intent was to use the cameras for deterrence, and for forensic, or after the fact, investigations and viewing.

She also argued that it is only speculation that having someone live monitoring the cameras would have possibly prevented Ritzer's death.

Murphy, who represents the Ritzer family, urged Lu to allow the case to go to trial, saying the central facts of the case remain in dispute — including whether the system was working as intended at the time.

"The software chosen was never going to integrate properly with the hardware at Danvers High School," Murphy told Lu. "This is the disastrous outcome."

To that end, he referred to a series of emails exchanged between school officials, the architect and contractors in 2012, when issues about compatibility between the software the system used and computers the school used became apparent.

The issues were ongoing as the opening of the school approached.

Taverna was still pressing for answers in September.

"This is obviously very important for the security of the building," Taverna wrote.

Eventually, a workaround was devised. But it would not be implemented until November.

By then, Philip Chism, a 14-year-old freshman, had raped and murdered Ritzer, 24, on the afternoon of Oct. 22, 2013.

"There's just no question that the system was not working, not operational, on the day of the death of Ms. Ritzer," Murphy told Lu during the hearing.

And while Kenney stressed the fact that video from the system was used to successfully prosecute Chism, Murphy pointed out it took Baldassare four days of work to find those videos.

"That's hardly a functioning video system," Murphy argued.

In addition, the cameras were motion-activated and the system designed to send alerts to authorized people, whether or not the person was watching the cameras live on a monitor.

Murphy said it's possible that had someone received an alert, and had the system been working, revealing a male student following Ritzer into the women's restroom, her death could have been prevented.

Lu did not immediately rule on the motion.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis