NEW YORK » A laid-off clothing designer fatally shot an executive at his former company outside the Empire State Building on Friday, setting off a chaotic showdown with police in front of one of the world’s best-known landmarks. Officers killed the gunman and at least nine others were wounded, some by stray police gunfire, authorities said.
The gunshots rang out on the Fifth Avenue side of the building at around 9 a.m., when pedestrians on their way to work packed sidewalks and merchants were opening their shops.
"People were yelling ‘Get down! Get down!’" said Marc Engel, an accountant who was on a bus in the area when he heard the shots. "It took about 15 seconds, a lot of pop, pop, pop, pop, one shot after the other."
Afterward, he saw the sidewalks littered with the wounded, including one person "dripping enough blood to leave a stream."
Wearing an olive suit and tie and carrying a briefcase, Jeffrey Johnson walked up to the import company vice president, Steven Ercolino, put a gun to his head and fired without saying a word, authorities said. A witness told investigators that Johnson shot Ercolino once in the head and, after he fell to the sidewalk, stood over him and shot him four more times.
"Jeffrey just came from behind two cars, pulled out his gun, put it up to Steve’s head and shot him," said Carol Timan, whose daughter, Irene, was walking to Hazan Imports at the time with Ercolino.
The gunman walked away and calmly turned up 5th Avenue, where he blended in with the crowd, police said.
A construction worker who saw the shooting followed Johnson and alerted two police officers, a detail regularly assigned to patrol city landmarks like the 1,454-foot skyscraper since the 9/11 terror attacks, officials said.
There were conflicting accounts about whether Johnson fired at the police officers or just pointed the gun at them.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly initially said the officers were fired upon, but later said police were investigating. Johnson can be seen on video reaching into a bag, pulling out a .45-caliber pistol and pointing it at officers, Kelly said.
The two officers drew their weapons and fired 16 rounds, killing Johnson, Kelly said.
"These officers … had absolutely no choice," Kelly said. "This individual took a gun out very close to them and perhaps fired at them."
Kelly said investigators believe police may be responsible for some of the injuries, based on the gunman’s weapon. Johnson’s semi-automatic weapon was equipped to fire at least eight rounds; at least one round was left in the clip, police said. Another loaded magazine was in his briefcase.
Johnson legally bought the gun in Sarasota, Fla., in 1991, but he didn’t have a required permit to possess the weapon in New York City, police said.
"New York City, as you know, is the safest big city in the country, and we are on pace to have a record low number of murders this year," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "But we are not immune to the national problem of gun violence," he said about the shooting, which comes in the wake of mass shootings inside a Colorado movie theater and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
Robert Asika, who was shot in the right arm, said he was "100 percent positive" that a police officer had shot him. He also said he saw Johnson fire his gun at the officers.
Asika, 23, sells tickets for the Empire State Building’s observatory.
"When I woke up this morning, I didn’t even want to go to work," he said. "Something told me not to go to work."
The wounded victims were five women and four men, aged 20 to 56, authorities said. All were from New York City, except a 35-year-old woman from Chapel Hill, N.C. They suffered graze wounds or other minor injuries, and police believe that at least some of the injuries were caused by bullet fragments that ricocheted off security planters.
Johnson, 58, and Ercolino had traded accusations of harassment when Johnson worked there, Kelly said. Johnson had been laid off about a year ago. Police said he blamed the victim, believing Ercolino had failed to aggressively promote his line of women’s T-shirts.
Ercolino’s profile on the business networking site LinkedIn identified him as a vice president of sales at Hazan Import. It said he was a graduate of the State University of New York at Oneonta.
He was single and had recently moved to New Jersey after living for a time in Warwick, just north of New York City, said his eldest brother, Paul Ercolino. He grew up in Nanuet, N.Y.
"He was in the prime of his life," Paul Ercolino said, adding that the family was in shock. He said his brother was a gregarious salesman — known to nieces and nephews as "Uncle Ducky" because of his nearly blond hair — who had followed his father into the garment industry, then later worked in women’s handbags and accessories.
He never mentioned to the family that he had any problems with a co-worker, Paul Ercolino said.
Hazan Import Corp. imports women’s clothing and accessories, according to public records. Calls to its executives weren’t immediately returned
Johnson worked at the company near the Empire State Building for about six years and was laid off because of downsizing, Kelly said.
Even after he was laid off, Johnson would leave his Upper East Side apartment building each morning in a suit, and often returned about a half hour later after going to get breakfast at McDonald’s, his neighbors said.