NEW YORK (Reuters) - An out-of-work fashion designer fatally shot a former co-worker near the Empire State Building on Friday and then was killed in a blaze of gunshots by police, stunning tourists and commuters outside of one of New York’s most popular landmarks.
Eight bystanders were wounded, possibly all of them by police bullets, though none of their injuries were life-threatening, police said.
Officials said that women’s accessories designer Jeffrey Johnson, 58, had been laid off from Hazan Imports a year ago and that while working there, had been locked in a dispute with the victim. Police said Johnson had claimed the victim had failed to sell enough of his creations and held a grudge.
Investigators were attempting to determine whether Johnson shot anyone beyond his initial target. All eight of the surviving victims could have been hit by the two police officers who shot at Johnson, officials said.
Several were likely hit by police bullets that ricocheted off large, anti-terror concrete flower pots stationed outside the Manhattan landmark, police said.
Other than its proximity, the Empire State Building had no link to the violence. Mayor Michael Bloomberg ruled out any connection to terrorism.
The shooting rattled an always-busy part of Midtown Manhattan at the height of the tourist season.
“I saw a friend of mine lying on the street bleeding. She was in shock,” said Christopher Collins, who said he tried to keep her calm as he rode with her in an ambulance. “I’m glad the cops shot him dead. One less trial we have to go through.”
The mother of a co-worker who witnessed the shooting identified the dead executive as Steve Ercolino. Police declined to confirm his identity.
Ercolino was walking toward Hazan Imports, across 33rd Street from the Empire State Building, and stopped to talk to a colleague. Johnson, dressed in a suit and tie and carrying a black canvas bag, walked up and shot Ercolino at close range, police said, and then stood over the man and shot him again — a total of five shots.
Johnson, carrying a second magazine in his bag, then walked “calmly” a block away, police said, past two officers stationed in front of the entrance to the Empire State Building. A pair of construction workers who witnessed the shooting followed Johnson and tipped off the officers, pointing at Johnson as he passed, police said.
The two cops approached Johnson, who drew his gun, turned and pointed it directly at the officers from about eight feet away, police said. Police opened fire and shot him, Police Department spokesman Paul Browne told reporters.
One officer fired nine times and the other seven times, Browne said. Investigators believe Johnson was shot seven times; his body had 10 bullets wounds, three of which were believed to be exit wounds, Browne said.
Animosity between Johnson and Ercolino had prompted them to file counter complaints with police in April 2011, Browne said. No charges resulted from the complaints.
It was the third major shooting of the summer in the United States, following an assault on a crowded cinema in Colorado and an attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, rekindling debate about gun control in America. The New York shooting was different in that Johnson appeared to have only one intended victim.
“We are not immune to the national problem of gun violence,” said Bloomberg, a leading national proponent of gun control and founder of the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Bloomberg has often called New York the safest big city in America, citing a declining crime rate that had the city on pace for another record low number of homicides in 2012.
“It’s time to get the guns off the street,” said Brandon Thorpe, 23, a janitor who said he has lost five friends to gun violence. “This is a tourist attraction. How are we supposed to make people feel safe if they come here and see something like this?”
The Empire State Building is walking distance from Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Terminal, two of New York’s main transportation hubs, and the shooting took place at the end of the morning rush hour.
“I heard the gunshots. It was like pop, pop, pop. It was definitely in a bunch,” said Dahlia Anister, 33, who works at an office near the building.
Mail courier James Bolden, 31, said he saw a “guy laying on the (sidewalk), bleeding from the neck and barely breathing.”
“Everybody was crowded around him taking pictures and video, and security guys were yelling everybody to get back, and give him space. He was barely breathing,” Bolden said.
One witness said she saw a woman who was shot in the foot and another woman being taken away in an ambulance.
“I was walking down 33rd (Street) and there’s a dead guy. I just saw pools of blood. He was laying down and the was blood pooling (around him),” said Justin Kellis, 35, who works nearby.
The United States has had two other mass shootings this summer. On July 20, a gunman opened fire at a midnight screening of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 people and wounding 58.
On August 5, a gunman killed six people and critically wounded three at a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee before police shot him dead in an attack authorities treated as an act of domestic terrorism.
This was the second high-profile shooting incident in two weeks in New York’s tourist-heavy Midtown Manhattan. On August 12, New York police shot and killed a knife-wielding suspect as he sought to evade them through Saturday-afternoon traffic and pedestrians in Times Square.
The art deco Empire State Building was the world’s tallest building for 40 years from its completion in 1931 until construction of the World Trade Center in 1971.
Several skyscrapers around the world have since surpassed the New York buildings. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, the Empire State Building was again the tallest building in New York City, though it was recently surpassed by a new tower under construction at Trade Center’s site.
Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Edith Honan, Hillary Russ, Daniel Bases and Anna Driver; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Bill Trott and Philip Barbara