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Empire State Building shooting: A case of grudge

August 25, 2012 14:18 IST

An accessories designer, who gunned down his former co-worker near the Empire State Building, had held a grudge against his victim for years and the two had filed police complaints against one another a year ago after getting into a scuffle in their office.

Jeffrey Johnson, 58, was shot dead by New York police officers stationed outside the popular tourist destination after he killed his former co-worker Steven Ercolino, 41, with a .45 calibre semiautomatic pistol on Friday.

Johnson had once told a former landlord Kathleen Walsh that he was a sharpshooter.

Authorities described Johnson as a "disgruntled" person who had been laid off from his job at 40-year-old apparel company Hazan Imports a year ago.

Neighbours and co-workers described the animosity that had existed between Johnson and Ercolino, saying the "two never got along," a report in the New York Times said.

A co-worker said Johnson was a "very eccentric" person and a "meticulous artist" who used to arrive first to work in the morning and was the last one to leave.

Ercolino joined Hazan as a vice president for sales in 2005, the same year that Johnson also joined the company. However Johnson's discomfort with Ercolino was soon on full display.

"As time goes by, you could walk down the hallway and see an elbow being thrown or a shoulder being shoved, or a comment," a co-worker Irene Timan said.

She said Johnson would often "taunt Steve, push him."

A few months after Johnson was laid off, he returned to his old office building in April last year.

Timan recalled that Ercolino had told her about an encounter the two had in the office elevator.

"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.'"

Johnson had not seemed affected by the size of his rival, who was about 5 feet 10 inches tall and 220 pounds, six or seven inches taller than Johnson and twice his weight.

Ercolino filed a police report and found that Johnson too had filed a complaint against him.

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.

Johnson, the son of a Japanese mother and an American father, spoke to his co-workers about having served in the military.

"He was in the Marines, or Special Forces," a co-worker said. "He was in Vietnam."

While the US military said there was no record of his service, a law enforcement official said he may have served in the Coast Guard.

Owner of the apparel store Ralph Hazan had once told Timan that Johnson might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Everyone in the office "walked on eggshells" around him, co-workers said.

"This guy was very eccentric," a co-worker said.

"He was so detail-oriented. If he had a free minute, he would start doing origami. The things that came out of his mind were so original and creative, you knew that his mind didn't work the same way as normal people."

Johnson had also told Walsh that he hated the work and was not paid enough.

When he was laid off, Johnson had "not freaked out" and there were no threats, the co-worker recalled.

Johnson used to put on the same suit every morning, leading one of his neighbors, Gisela Casella, 71, to believe he had worked at a bank.

"He was the nicest guy," she said.

"I never saw him with a woman."

The long-time feud between Johnson and Ercolino came to end on Friday morning when he shot him.

As Ercolino was approaching the office, Timan shouted out to him and asked him to wait.

Ercolino, just back from a Mexican vacation with his girlfriend, had told Timan he wasn't feeling well.

They then walked toward the entrance together and were almost at the office door when Timan saw Johnson lurking behind a white van.

"I saw him pull a gun out from his jacket, and I thought to myself, 'Oh my God, he's going to shoot him' -- and I wanted to turn and push Steve out of the way," Timan said.

"But it was too late. Steve screamed, Jeff shot him, and I just turned and ran."

"He didn't say one word," said Timan of Johnson. "He just had the look of death, of evil, on his face."

"He just started shooting," she said, adding "and he did not stop."

Francis Ercolino, Ercolino's father, said he spoke with his son daily and he never mentioned any problems at work.

He said that Steven's sister and two brothers, along with his nephews and nieces, were heartbroken.

"He was just a wonderful person," he said.

"Just write that. I have nothing else to say."

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