A Winchester man has been arrested and charged for allegedly stabbing a 22-year-old woman to death on Saturday morning inside the town’s public library and slashing a man who attempted to intervene during the attack.
Jeffrey Yao, 23, was held without bail at his arraignment on Monday in Woburn District Court. He is charged with murder and armed assault with intent to murder.
The Middlesex District Attorney’s office said Monday the incident, as well as the motive for the attack that left 22-year-old Deane Kenny Stryker dead, remains under investigation. Yao’s attorney, J.W. Carney Jr., pointed toward his client’s “long history of serious mental illness” when discussing the case with reporters outside the courthouse.
“This case is very, very related to his extreme mental illness,” said Carney, a high-profile defense attorney who in recent years represented James “Whitey” Bulger and Owen Labrie.
“There’s no indication that he knew the woman, just a completely random attack,” he added.
A not guilty plea was entered on Yao’s behalf, and the judge scheduled a probable cause hearing for April 11. Here’s what we know so far about the attack:
Winchester police received multiple 911 calls at about 10:38 a.m. Saturday reporting a stabbing at the Winchester Public Library, according to the DA’s office. With the police station located nearby, officers responded to the scene within three minutes, where they discovered two people, Stryker and a 77-year-old man, suffering from stab wounds, authorities said.
The preliminary investigation indicates that Stryker was seated at a table in a reading room off the library’s main lobby, “apparently studying or doing work,” when Yao approached her from behind, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said.
The DA’s office said that, “unprovoked,” Yao began stabbing the 22-year-old woman with an approximately 10-inch hunting knife.
“A number of other people came to her aid including a 77-year-old man who had been sitting near her in the reading room,” the DA’s office said Monday.
Yao briefly paused when the 77-year-old man yelled at him to stop, prosecutor Kate Cimini said during Monday’s arraignment.
“The defendant did stop briefly and turned to the man and cut across his upper arm with the knife before turning back to Ms. Stryker and continuing to assault her,” she said.
Cimini said Yao pursued Stryker and continued attacking her when she attempted to flee to the library’s front lobby, where patrons ultimately separated him from her. Once unarmed, Yao put his hands in the air, Cimini said. He was subsequently taken into custody by the responding officers.
Stryker was taken to Winchester Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
Cimini said an autopsy Sunday found that Stryker died from the 20 “knife wounds” she sustained.
Investigators recovered the suspected murder weapon and found a knife sheath for an approximately 10-inch hunting knife in Yao’s waistband, she said.
At a press conference on Saturday, Winchester Police Chief Peter MacDonnell thanked the people who came to Stryker’s aid.
“I would like to thank all those people for their help during this incident, and I’d like to thank my officers, as well, for their quick response to this incident,” he said.
Ryan said Yao was alone “at the time the incident began,” but said she didn’t know if any of his friends or family members had been in the library.
“With respect to motive, possible knowledge of the parties of each other, that is all part of the early and ongoing investigation, which we’re conducting right now,” she said Saturday.
The library will reopen Tuesday, according to a tweet.
The Library will reopen Tuesday at 1:00 pm. Thank you for your patience during this difficult time at the library. We thank you for your support and kindness. Please respect our staff as our community recovers from this tragedy. pic.twitter.com/waB01ihg1Y
— Winchester Library (@winpublib) February 26, 2018
Hundreds gathered Sunday for a service at the Winchester Unitarian Society to remember Stryker, a first-year student at University of New England’s College of Osteopathic Medicine who had graduated from Winchester High School, according to the Globe:
Friends at the church recalled Stryker as a young woman committed to someday helping others as a physician and who as a teen had worked caring for children, both for the society and at nearby Temple Shir Tikvah.
In an interview, temple Cantor Beth Levin told reporters she was “heartbroken and soulsick” and had known Stryker for about a decade.
“Deane was full of love and gentleness, and she was part of our community as a babysitter and as a spirit that just made everyone feel good wherever she went,” Levin said. “She just represented all that is good in each of us. Kids felt it; adults felt it. She was trusted; she was responsible.”
Later Sunday, in a Facebook post, University of New England President James Herbert said the 22-year-old “was just beginning her journey toward becoming a physician and showed great promise as a student doctor who was passionate about medicine and helping others.”
Authorities have not publicly identified the 77-year-old who was stabbed trying to help Stryker, but according to court records obtained by The Boston Globe, the man was Lester Taber.
Taber was treated and released from an area hospital, according to the DA’s office. He briefly spoke to reporters arriving home Monday, but declined to discuss the incident.
“It’s a tragic situation,’’ he said, according to the Globe. “I’ve expressed my condolences to the family of the young girl.”
Prosecutors said in court that at the time of the attack, Yao was on pre-trial probation following his arrest last fall for allegedly attempting to break into a neighbor’s home.
“As a result of that case, this court required the defendant to remain medically compliant, and the reports we received have indicated that he was, in fact, medically compliant,” Cimini said during the 23-year-old’s arraignment.
According to the Globe, a neighbor called police before dawn on Sept. 9 after he was awakened by the sound of “loud bangs.” He told police that when he went downstairs he saw Yao banging on the backdoor of his house.
“He is a total loose cannon,” the neighbor told police at the time, according to the Globe.
Yao’s neighbors on Farrow Street told the Globe on Saturday that, concerned about his behavior, they had previously reported him to authorities multiple times:
Once a quiet youngster, the 23-year-old Yao had transformed into a terror, they said, trying to break into homes, smashing glass in the road, shattering his own windows, and making threatening gestures at passersby. Terrified neighbors said they had reported Yao to authorities.
“We knew something would happen,” said Leslie Luongo, who lives nearby. “We didn’t know when.”
Luongo said she was so afraid of Yao that she would run to her car every day when she left the house at 5 a.m. to go to work. She said residents kept their children indoors, kept baseball bats nearby, and locked their doors.
Luongo told the Globe that when she reported her neighbors’ concerns about Yao to Winchester police, she was told not to worry. Police told her that they were shadowing Yao when he went out at night, she said. MacDonnell told the newspaper Monday that officers weren’t shadowing Yao when he left his home.
A former classmate of Yao’s at Winchester High School, where the suspect reportedly wrestled and ran cross country, told the Globe that Yao’s behavior changed his junior or senior year of high school.
“He started getting strange and started alienating people. No one’s quite sure why it happened or how it happened,” Alex McDonough said.
Outside the courthouse on Monday, Carney described his client as a “troubled young man” with a “long history of serious mental illness.” He said he’s “assembling a team of doctors” to evaluate Yao.
“The ideal outcome for a tragedy like this is for the defendant to be found not guilty because of his mental illness and have him committed to a maximum security hospital where he will remain for up to the rest of his life,” he said.
The attorney said Yao has been hospitalized “multiple” times for his mental illness. He said he didn’t know about Yao’s “medical protocol at this point.”
“This is the type of episode or illness that really can’t be predicted,” Carney said. “It’s totally unexpected to everyone, most especially his parents.”
“He’s in shock,” he said of his client, “very flat affect, just trying to make sense of where he is and why he’s here.”
According to Carney, there is “no indication” that Yao knew Stryker, calling the stabbing “just a completely random attack.” He described Yao’s life since graduating high school as a “very troubling existence,” saying that Winchester police were “very familiar” with his client.
“This whole tragedy is every parent’s nightmare,” Carney said. “It’s the nightmare for the victim’s family who my client’s parents feel devastated about the death of that young woman who is totally blameless. And my client’s family is devastated that after years of dealing with this mental illness he commits this act. It’s every parent’s nightmare, for both sets of parents.”