WINCHESTER — Farrow Street feels like a place preserved from another time. The well-kept houses and small yards along its three-block length seem neither rich nor poor. Laughing children run back and forth among backyards, between old trees that extend branches as though to offer protection.
The families on this street all know and look out for one another. Each summer, they have a block party and drag their grills together on one driveway. Even a stranger knocking on doors one recent day was greeted with warm hellos and invitations to come in.
Maybe because of that uncommon congeniality, the sight of one of the neighborhood boys one Saturday about four years ago, standing alone on a footbridge over the rush of nearby Horn Pond Brook by a narrow fringe of woods, was all the more alarming.
The boy was Jeffrey Yao, one of two sons of a family from China who lived on Farrow Street. The family was reserved but kind-hearted and well-liked. They shared produce from their garden with others on the street, and delivered food and gifts to celebrate new babies. When the Yao boys were young, they went trick-or-treating with the other kids. When their closest neighbors, the MacMillans, went fishing and brought home their catch, the boys’ mother, Yan Zhang, cooked it up for the two households to share.
On that day, though, Jeff Yao, then in his late teens, seemed in an inexplicable fury, and was smashing clay pots against the ground, one after another, shattering them.
No one then could yet foresee that this was an early sign of dark trouble, or that Yao would talk of hearing voices or that, some four years later, he would allegedly ride his bicycle downtown to the public library, carrying a 10-inch hunting knife, sneak up behind an old high school classmate, Deane Kenny Stryker, and stab her more than 20 times, killing her.
But even without knowing what would one day come, the moment was frightening. A mother who happened to see him sought another neighbor on the street to tell. Word spread. Parents kept their children away from the footbridge that day. And they began asking a question they would ask again and again. What should we do?
“They were the nicest, quietest neighbors,” said Carol MacMillan, whose parents lived next door to the family. “He was a nice, quiet kid. And then something happened.”
In reconstructing the last five difficult years of life in their neighborhood, residents of Farrow Street and some who live on nearby blocks described a growing sense of unease as Yao’s behavior seemed to grow more threatening — and also a feeling of impotence about what, if anything, could be done to avert what seemed to some inevitable trouble. Many of the neighbors spoke to the Globe on the condition that their names not be published for fear of further hurting the Yao family.
In the months and years after the incident on the footbridge, neighbors said, they noticed other strange and destructive behavior by Jeff Yao. He tore a gutter from his parents’ house and threw rocks at the house, denting and cracking the vinyl siding, one said. A railing was ripped down and the glass in a rear door shattered. Another said that Yao had busted the basement windows.
“He’d be picking up rocks and just pelting them at the house,” one neighbor said.
At times, his strange behavior spilled over beyond his family’s house and yard. A couple renting in the neighborhood complained to their landlord that Yao had rifled through their mailbox. Whenever Yao came out of his house, they made their two young children go indoors. He swore at one woman and her daughter as they walked by him; on a different occasion, he screamed at someone else, a pregnant woman walking down the street.
There seemed to be times when Yao would disappear, sometimes for months. Neighbors speculated: Had he been hospitalized? Was he visiting relatives in China? Those who worried breathed easier during those lulls. But then Yao would reappear, along with the unsettling happenings around the neighborhood, and their concern would spike again.
At Winchester High School, where Yao was once a member of the wrestling team, students noticed that he seemed to have stopped bathing. When a classmate’s mother died, he posted a cruel comment on her Facebook page.
In the fall of 2012, Yao disappeared from the neighborhood again. It turned out he had gone to college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y. But within a short time, he dropped out and was back.
Two neighbors said they spoke to Yao’s parents and entreated them to find help for their son.
“I told him that he needs to see somebody,” one of the neighbors said. “He’s a man that had serious mental illness that needed help.”
The neighbor said Yao’s father, Haiquan “Howard” Yao, replied that he wanted to help his son but didn’t know how.
Troubles continued in the neighborhood. Rumors swirled sometimes about mysterious problems, like a rash of flat tires. Some blamed Yao, but it was never clear who was to blame. Tension built over time between neighbors who saw the young man as a serious danger, and others who believed such fears were an overreaction.
“I can’t believe anyone was living in fear,” said one resident. “Psychiatric problems happen in all families.”
Then, at 4 a.m. one night last September, a resident on Farrow Street woke to the sound of something crashing. He looked out his window and saw Yao on the porch below, throwing his body against the glass slider door. The man in the house started screaming, and charged downstairs. Yao ran off, he said, and soon after, Yao’s father appeared at the house to apologize.
“I was yelling at him, ‘Howard, he’s going to kill somebody!’ ” the man said.
Picked up by police a short distance away, Yao was charged with attempted breaking and entering. The incident, which woke neighbors from their sleep, sharply raised their sense of fear and urgency. They began talking — sharing what they knew about Yao’s history — and advocating for more action to protect the public.
Unsure where Yao had gone after his arrest — and uncertain how safe they should feel — two residents, including the one whose house Yao had tried to break into, set out to find out where he was. They went to Winchester Hospital to ask if he was a patient, and when that got them nowhere, they visited the police station, demanding, unsuccessfully, to be told his whereabouts. (Court records show that Yao was taken to the emergency department at Winchester Hospital and was admitted for “management of his condition.”)
Two other neighbors went to warn officials at a neighborhood school, Lynch Elementary, bringing a picture of Yao they had pulled from Facebook. They wanted teachers to be able to recognize him if he showed up on the playground. But one teacher told the Globe that teachers never got the warning.
Peter Luongo and his adult daughter Nicole went to the police station with a question.
“We went to ask them, are we safe?” said Nicole Luongo, who had long felt nervous when she passed Yao walking on the street at night. “Should we leave our doors and windows open? We felt the fear of the unknown.”
The answer, she said, was less than reassuring: The police said they were aware of the situation, and were handling it.
Across the street, the man whose door Yao had tried to break down said Yao’s mother also came to apologize after the incident, and also to try to ease their fears.
“She said he wasn’t dangerous, and that he wasn’t trying to hurt anyone,” said the man, who asked that his name be withheld.
Five months later, when he heard about the stabbing at the library, the man said that he guessed at once that it was Yao.
The murder left neighbors wrestling with questions, their anger and frustration tangled with grief and despair. Had they done the right things? How had years of trying failed to change the ending?
After Yao was hospitalized in September, “the relief in our neighborhood was palpable,” one resident said this week in an e-mail. “Even though he is gone for good now, we do not feel that same relief. It never should have ended this way. We are sick to our stomachs.”
“The vast majority of people with mental illness are harmless,” she wrote. “It was clear that this person was not.”
Last week, as springlike temperatures drew residents outside to walk dogs and push strollers, there was no sign of life at the Yaos’ pale yellow house. One neighbor said he thought the family had hung dark curtains in the windows. Several had noticed that Yao’s parents had begun parking behind their home, and using the back door, since his arrest.
“I think there is a sense of shame, of losing face,” said Herman Correa-Diaz, who lives across the street with his wife and children. Yet Correa-Diaz and others throughout the neighborhood said they do not blame Yao’s parents, and would not treat them any differently.
“People aren’t going to stop waving at them, or shun them,” Leslie Luongo said. “People here aren’t like that.”
Sitting on his porch last week, a few feet from the sliding door that Yao had slammed himself against a few months before, the neighbor who lives there recalled a day last fall, after Yao had come home from the hospital, when he saw Yao and his dad outside riding bikes together — something he had never seen before. In that moment, the man said, his anger faded, and he felt the excruciating weight of the family’s dilemma.
“They looked happy, and I thought, this is what this is all about — he just wants his son,” said the man, who has sons himself.
In the quiet since the stabbing, with Yao taken away and the threat now gone, people here had expected to rest easier. Instead, some said, their unease has persisted, the dread now overtaken by the horror of knowing that what they had most feared had actually happened.
“The first night he was not here, I thought I was going to sleep well,” neighbor Ruth Cardona-Suarez said. “I didn’t.”
Evan Allen and Stephanie Ebbert of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Jenna Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JRussglobe. Laura Crimaldi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.