An woman was found dead Tuesday inside a Brighton apartment by Boston firefighters, who had to fend off a knife-wielding man and stop him from jumping from a fourth-floor window, officials said.
Police did not name the woman, but neighbors said she was a familiar face at the Commonwealth Development, where she had lived for the past seven years. The victim was known to spend countless hours collecting aluminum bottles and cans, going out with a pushcart twice a day, neighbors said.
When firefighters responded to the apartment around 9 a.m., they had to subdue a “combative” man, who according to numerous residents was the tenant’s son. Cheryl Fiandaca, a Police Department spokeswoman, identified the man as Huan yuan Li, 55. Authorities said Li brandished a knife and lunged at a firefighter, and then attempted to jump from a window.
“The firefighter tried to get him out of the apartment because of the fire, but the man got into a defensive stance, and had a weapon in his hand,” said Steve MacDonald, a Boston Fire Department spokesman. “The subject started making jabbing motions at him.”
As that encounter was taking place in the smoke-filled living room, other firefighters who had rushed into the apartment found the woman’s lifeless body in the kitchen. A firefighter who picked up the woman realized she was already dead and placed her back down, so as not to interfere with an investigation into her death.
“It was a very dangerous situation, with so much happening at the same time,” MacDonald said. “There’s a fire, a body found, and someone armed inside.”
The fire at the Boston Housing Authority property was quickly extinguished, but officials are investigating the cause.
Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis said the cause of the woman’s death was not yet known and that the state medical examiner’s office will conduct an autopsy.
The victim did not speak English, but several residents said Tuesday they understood some of her greetings and other pleasantries.
Her husband died in 2007 and she apparently lived alone, according to housing officials. The victim had participated in coffee hours and other activities at the development.
There were never any reports of problems at the unit, according to Lydia Agro, spokeswoman for the BHA.
Several residents said Li showed up at the development about two weeks ago, and that after he arrived, the woman was rarely seen outside. One neighbor said she had heard a loud argument in the apartment Monday night.
A witness to Tuesday’s fire said he saw Li lean out of the window briefly with a look of terror and fright on his face.
“It was pretty scary, I thought he was going to jump,” said Greg Howell, 25. “He was yelling out something but I couldn’t tell what he was saying.”
As Li was turned toward the window, a firefighter rushed him and subdued him with a bear hug as other firefighters helped get him on the floor. Fiandaca said Li was in custody at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he is being treated for injuries sustained in the fire.
Melissa McAuliffe, who lives two doors away from the scene, said the victim also had a daughter who would bring her food twice a month.
McAuliffe said her son, Jaden, 3, often dropped off empty aluminum cans at the woman’s door. “She was very polite and respectful, even though there was a communication barrier,” McAuliffe said.
Agro said her office was reaching out to the woman’s family and the community.
“We are working with the mayor’s office to provide trauma counseling beginning tomorrow [Wednesday] for residents and staff,” Agro said.
Li is scheduled to be arraigned in Brighton District Court Wednesday on charges of arson, assault with a dangerous weapon, and hindering a firefighter, Fiandaca said.Brian R. Ballou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Matt Woolbright can be reached at email@example.com