Yesterday’s fatal shooting outside the Empire State Building appears to have been the worst case result of a longstanding office feud between the gunman, 58-year-old Jeffrey Johnson, and his victim, 41-year-old Steven Ercolino. The two had worked together at Hazan Imports, which sells bags and belts, up until about two years ago, when Johnson was laid off. According to several people at the company, Johnson was a “meticulous” and “eccentric” designer who never got along with Ercolino, a “laid-back” salesman. As Irene Timan, a Hazen employee who was standing next to Ercolino when he was killed, told the New York Post, “There was bad blood between Steve and Jeff, for no particular reason. Jeff just did not like Steve, for no reason.” Said another, “You chalk it up to two guys being around each other too much.”
Johnson and Ercolino’s bad relationship had gotten physical in the past, with the two regularly shoving and elbowing each other in the office hallways. Later, a few months after Johnson lost his job, he returned to the building and confronted Ercolino. According to Timan:
“Steve was leaving the elevator, Jeff was walking in, and Jeff elbowed him,” she recalled. “Steve had finally had enough, so he grabbed Jeff by the throat, and said, ‘If you ever do anything like this again, I’m going to kill you.’ ”
Ms. Timan told Mr. Ercolino to file a police report. “He went down to the precinct and called me from there, and he said, ‘You’re never going to believe this, but Jeff just left, and he filed a complaint against me!’ ” Both told the police the other had threatened him. According to the police, the artist blamed the salesman for not selling enough of the items he had designed.
After that, Johnson seems to have stayed away from Hazan, though some of his neighbors believed he was still employed: Johnson continued to leave his apartment on East 84th Street every morning in a suit and tie. However, instead of going to the office, he was in the habit of heading to McDonald’s, where he’d buy a meal to eat at home.
Other than an occasional pop-in by his mother, Johnson never welcomed any guests to the simple apartment.
“I don’t think he has any friends,” said building super Guillermo Suarez, 71. “I’ve never seen anybody… He is a very mellow guy.”
Besides Johnson, who was shot when he turned his 45-caliber pistol on the police, Ercolino was the only person killed in yesterday’s attack. Nine bystanders were wounded during the incident; it seems that most of them were accidentally shot by officers trying to fire at Johnson on the busy midtown street.
Update: During an appearance in Harlem this morning, Ray Kelly responded to questions about the way the police responded to the shooting. He said that Johnson did not actually shoot at the cops at the scene, though he did point his weapon at them as they approached. He also seemed to confirm Johnson did not shoot any bystanders, and that the nine people injured were “either by fragments or by bullets fired by police.” However, Kelly said he believed the incident “was handled well.”