NEW YORK — A recently laid-off store worker at Hazan Import Corp., a Jewish-owned company that deals in handbags and other fashion items, shot former colleague Steven Ercolino to death Friday morning outside New York’s iconic Empire State Building before being killed by police, police said. Nine others were hit by gunfire in the confrontation, but police said all were expected to survive.
Police identified the gunman as Jeffrey Johnson, 53, a former designer of women’s accessories who was laid off last year. They said they had little details yet about his background, including a criminal record.
Police were looking into his relationship with Ercolino, the company’s vice president of sales, who had traded accusations of harassment with Johnson when he worked there. Johnson also blamed Ercolino for his layoff, saying that he hadn’t aggressively marketed Johnson’s new T-shirt line, police spokesman Paul Browne said.
After waiting for Ercolino, 41, to come to work, Johnson walked up to him, pulled out a .45-caliber pistol and fired at his head, Kelly said. After he fell to the ground, Johnson stood over him and shot four more times, a witness told investigators.
The shooting set off chaos in the heart of Manhattan at the height of the summer travel season and just after the morning rush hour. Police on their regular anti-terrorism duties in the highly touristed area rushed to the scene.
Bloomberg said some of the victims may have been hit by police bullets as they confronted the gunman.
“This was a terrible tragedy,” Bloomberg told a press conference. “We are not immune to the national problem of gun violence.”
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said Johnson turned his .45-caliber pistol on officers and they returned fire. It’s not clear if Johnson opened fire on the officers.
Federal officials said the 9 am shooting wasn’t related to terrorism.
Construction worker Chris Ogden told the Daily News tabloid he was working on a scaffold above one entrance to the building when he saw someone in a suit and carrying a briefcase start shooting.
“He shot the guy in the head,” Ogden told the newspaper. “The guy went down. He took a second shot when he was down.”
Ogden said then casually walked away. “We were screaming from the top, ‘It’s the guy in the grey suit!'” Ogden said.
“We were just working here and we just heard bang, bang, bang!” said Mohammed Bachchu, 22, a worker at a nearby souvenir shop. He said he rushed out and saw seven people lying on the ground, covered in blood.
Resident Rebecca Fox, 27, said she saw people running down the street and at first thought it was a celebrity sighting. Then she saw a woman shot in the foot and a man dead on the ground.
“I was scared and shocked and literally shaking,” she said.
A photo posted to an Instagram account belonging to a person identified as mr_mookie, an eyewitness, shows a victim, his head propped on the sidewalk and his body in the street, being helped by bystanders. The victim’s identity and condition were not immediately known.
A body remained at the scene more than an hour after the shooting. Police scoured the area for bullets.
A witness had told police that Johnson fired at the officers, but authorities say ballistics evidence so far doesn’t support that. Johnson’s .45-caliber weapon held seven rounds, they said. He fired five times at Ercolino, one round was still in the gun and one was ejected when officers secured it, authorities said.
Another loaded magazine was found in Johnson’s 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.
The Empire State Building anchors one of the city’s busiest areas. The website for the building says about four million people visit the tower’s observatory decks each year, and sidewalks outside the building bustle with people selling tickets for its attractions.
Many others are shoppers drawn to stores along both 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. The shooting occurred at their intersection. Streets around the immediate area remained closed at midday.