Man Slain After Shooting Ex-Colleague Near Empire State

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A man fired from his job near the Empire State Building returned to his former workplace today and shot a co-worker, triggering a firefight with police near one of Manhattan’s most recognizable landmarks. The shooter and a 41-year-old man were dead after the violence, and as many as nine people were injured.

The assailant, Jeffrey Johnson, was fired last year from his job as a women’s accessory designer at Hazan Imports Corp., Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said at a news briefing. The 58-year-old Manhattan resident returned to the business on West 33rd Street and shot Steve Ercolino in the head at close range on the street at 9:03 a.m. local time, officials said.

Johnson took a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol from his bag after two officers on counterterrorism patrol approached him fleeing the scene, Kelly said. A construction worker helped identify the shooter, who was dressed in a gray business suit.

“The perpetrator pulled his gun out and tried to shoot at the cops,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters in a news briefing at the scene. “Whether he got off any bullets or not is to be determined. How many he shot earlier, to be determined. We do know that the cops fired back. The tape clearly shows that the guy has the gun out and was trying to kill the police officers.”

Friendly Fire

Today’s shooting was the third this month at a major tourist attraction in the most populous U.S. city. Yesterday, a street vendor near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx shot two competitors and on Aug. 11, police gunned down a knife-wielding man near Times Square.

Some of the victims wounded today, all of whom are expected to survive, may have been shot accidentally by police, Kelly said. The injured included two women and seven men who were taken to hospitals.

Johnson and Ercolino made complaints to police last year accusing each another of verbal harassment, Detective Martin Speechley said.

The New York Times reported that a woman who worked with Ercolino was walking with him when he was killed. Irene Timan, 35, was near their building when she saw Johnson behind a van, the newspaper reported.

Violence Erupts

“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 told the Times. “I knew it, I just knew it was going to happen. But it was too late. Steve screamed, Jeff shot him, and I just turned and ran.”

About 11:45 a.m., police removed a body clad in a gray suit in front of the Empire State Building’s Fifth Avenue entrance. Evidence markers were scattered around the sidewalk. Another body on 33rd Street was taken away about 12:30 p.m.

Johnson doesn’t appear to have a criminal record, said the mayor, who is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP. Johnson bought his gun legally in Florida and had no permit to own or carry it in New York City, said Marc LaVorgna, Bloomberg’s spokesman.

The door to the one-bedroom apartment on East 82nd Street, where Johnson had been living for the past 18 to 24 months, was open when police arrived about 10:30 a.m., said the building’s superintendent, Guillermo Suarez, 72.

Creature of Habit

The assailant had the same daily routine, Suarez said: he’d leave his apartment every morning between 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. and return about 20 minutes later with two bags from McDonald’s. He appeared to wear only two suits -- one a dirty gray, another a dirty brown, Suarez said.

“He did the same thing every day, except today he didn’t come back,” Suarez said. “He’s a very mellow guy. I never thought he would do anything like this.”

A man who answered a telephone listed in Ercolino’s name said, “Respect our sorrow, please,” before hanging up without identifying himself.

The site of the violence is an edifice synonymous with Manhattan. The 1,453-foot, 103-story skyscraper was completed in 1931. It was the tallest building in the world until New York’s World Trade Center was built in the early 1970s. Its 86th- and 102nd-floor observatories attract about 4 million visitors a year, according to its website.

In 1997, a gunman opened fire on a crowd on its observation deck, killing one person. At least six people were injured.

The New York shootings follow a series of mass killings, including one on July 20 near Denver, when a masked gunman opened fire in a suburban Aurora theater, killing 12 and injuring 58. James Holmes, a former graduate student in neuroscience at the University of Colorado in Denver, faces multiple murder charges.

In Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a gunman killed six people at a Sikh temple Aug. 5 before being wounded by police and taking his own life.

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