Yuzhen Lei was known in her neighborhood as a lively woman who loved to take walks and linger, talking with friends at the Chinatown Gate with its ornate lions meant to ward off evil. Her husband died last year, but a friend said the 72-year-old Lei was still going strong.
“She was a nice lady,” said Linda Lai, 63, who has lived for 14 years in the same apartment building on Chauncy Street as Lei. “And she was young. She seemed very healthy. She still had life left.”
Lei was killed as she walked near her home Wednesday morning, after what prosecutors say was a chance encounter with Tajanetta Downing, a woman with a history of charges for erratic and violent behavior.
According to court documents, Lei and Downing were walking in the area of Essex Street and Chauncy Street when, Downing claims, Lei bumped into her. Downing said she responded by shoving the elderly woman to the ground, where she hit her head.
Downing “kept it moving,” she later told police, according to court documents, but could hear another person asking Lei if she was all right.
Witnesses — including a man working as a production assistant on the set of the “Ghostbusters” movie being filmed in Chinatown — described Downing to police, who stopped her at the intersection of Summer and Arch streets.
“She pushed me and I pushed her back,” Downing allegedly told them.
A law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation said it did not appear that Downing meant to kill Lei.
Lei was rushed to Tufts Medical Center with a skull fracture and brain hemorrhaging, where she died.
“I can’t believe this. People are usually nice. They don’t push people,” said Carly Feng, 33, who has lived in Lei’s building for about 10 years. Feng said she did not know Lei, but she was outraged over the sudden and apparently unprovoked nature of her killing. She was shocked, she said, that Downing could have left Lei crumpled on the ground and simply walk away.
“If it was an accident you could carry her, you could say sorry,” she said.
But Downing, who claims addresses in Jamaica Plain and Lawrence, has a history of arrests on charges involving unpredictable behavior.
She was arrested in Lynn in 2011 after allegedly smashing a stereo when her roommate’s friend accidentally brushed by her leg while she lay on a couch, according to a law enforcement official and an article written at the time in The Daily Item.
After the man brushed her leg, according to the article, Downing told him, “You could say excuse me.” After the man apologized, Downing allegedly swore at him, and they argued.
According to the article, Downing smashed the stereo on the ground, and smeared hair gel on it and also fought with a relative, pulling her hair.
Downing told police she was the victim of assault, because the man hit her feet with his legs, according to the article.
Suffolk County prosecutors say Downing was also charged in 2013 with assaulting a man at a Columbia Road residence and then assaulting the Boston police officers who responded.
She was also charged with throwing an apple, a purse, and a backpack at a Transit Police officer who stopped her for fare evasion at the JFK/UMass station.
Those two Suffolk cases remain open, and her bail was revoked Thursday.
Lei’s family could not be reached Friday. Lai said her friend was from China but had lived on Chauncy Street “for a long, long time.”
Baolian Kuang, a community organizer at the Chinese Progressive Association, said her father-in-law knows Lei’s son. The two men meet regularly at the Chinatown Gate, Kuang said, but when her father-in-law saw Lei’s son on Thursday, he said he had to go to the hospital to see his mother.
Lei’s husband died last year, Kuang said her father-in-law told her.
“So sad, this family, so sad,” she said.
Kuang said she had warned her father-in-law not to walk around Chinatown, because the area is crowded with people trying to catch a glimpse of the filming of “Ghostbusters,” and she was worried he could be hurt.
A man who works on the “Ghostbusters” set but declined to give his name said a production assistant gave the police the tip that helped them find Downing. He said that police and fire details on the set were the first responders to assist Lei.
Lei’s death left Chinatown residents shaken.
“I never thought someone would do that to an old lady,” said Eva Loh, 19, who has lived in Lei’s building for about six years and said it is full of senior citizens who take walks through the neighborhood. “People are usually so respectful of the elderly.”