Cops: 2 dead, 8 wounded after Empire State Building shootings

Posted on: 9:50 am, August 24, 2012, by , updated on: 06:58pm, August 24, 2012

NEW YORK (CNN) — A disgruntled former apparel designer was killed Friday in a hail of police gunfire in front of the Empire State Building when he shot and killed a co-worker and engaged in a gun battle with two officers, authorities said.

At least eight others were wounded in the incident as the officers unloaded 14 rounds at the gunman who apparently turned his weapon against them in one of Manhattan’s busiest neighborhoods.

The violence erupted just as visitors began to queue up to ascend the famous New York skyscraper.

The shooter was later identified as 58-year-old Jeffrey Johnson, who was laid off from his job as a designer of women’s accessories at Hazan Imports last year.

Witnesses recount chaotic, unsettling scene at Empire State shooting

Some of the wounded may have been inadvertently hit in the crossfire or by ricocheting bullets, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters during a Friday news conference.

“We have on tape the perpetrator pulled his gun out and tried to shoot at the cops,” he said. “Whether he got off any bullets or not, to be determined.”

One of the victims, Erica Solar, was on her way to get a cup of coffee at Dunkin Donuts when a bullet tore through the back of her leg, her brother said. The Manhattan receptionist is being treated at the city’s Bellevue Medical Center.

Friday’s melee splattered blood on a Midtown sidewalk and was captured on video by an Australian tourist, offering a street-level glimpse of a deadly shooting that prompted road closures and frightened onlookers.

At least two police officers can be seen in the video with their guns drawn over a man who is lying on his back. The man appears to be alive, with his hands partially outstretched.

The camera then pans to others who are apparently injured, as pedestrians duck behind buildings on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.

Johnson, who was clad in a business suit and carrying a briefcase during the shooting, had a longstanding dispute with the victim over allegations of harassment in the workplace, police said.

Both men had filed prior complaints. But on Friday morning, police say, Johnson fatally shot the 41-year-old man.

The victim was identified as Steven Ercolino by the president of State University of New York at Oneonta, where he was a 1992 graduate.

“We were saddened to learn that a member of our Oneonta alumni community was the victim of this tragic and senseless killing,” Nancy Kleniewski said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Steve’s family.”

Ercolino is listed as a vice president of sales at Hazan Import Corp., according to his LinkedIn profile. Police have not yet identified the victim.

Authorities initially reported that nine people were wounded in the incident, but later revised that number to eight.

A construction worker dashed after the gunman following the initial gunshots, alerting officers.

The two policemen were being treated at a Manhattan hospital Friday afternoon, though no injuries were considered life-threatening, Bloomberg said.

Police say Johnson used a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun — which held eight rounds — and was carrying extra ammunition in his briefcase. He purchased the weapon legally in 1991 in Florida but did not have a permit to carry it in New York City.

The former Manhattan resident does not appear to have had a criminal record, but authorities are still checking, Bloomberg added.

His neighbor, Gisela Casella, described Johnson as a quiet animal lover whose death left her “shocked.”

“He was the nicest guy. He must have snapped or something, I don’t know,” she said.

His landlord, Guillermo Suarez, said he lived alone and that he’d seen Johnson leave the building around 8 a.m. dressed in a suit.

Witnesses said police shot him at least three times.

“I heard the gunshots,” said Anika Basu, who was riding on a bus near the building when the shooting took place. “I looked towards the left as saw three people fall … the whole entire crosswalk emptied and people were running.”

“We didn’t realize if it was an actual gunshot or what,” she said.

“It’s just a crazy scene here,” added Rebecca Fox, who works across the street from the Empire State Building. She said she had been getting coffee and had her headphones on when she saw people running.

“When I walked across the street, I saw a woman who had been shot in the foot. And she was just in shock, sitting there,” Fox said. “I looked down, I saw another man had been laying on the ground, and he wasn’t moving.”

One witness — 22-year-old Max Kaplan — said he heard at least nine shots and saw ambulances race to the scene.

“We’re all very shaken up at the office,” he said.

Aaron Herman, a CNN iReporter, painted a portrait of confusion.

“It was a little chaotic. Police had barricaded the area, and I saw one woman who was a victim, I think she had been grazed,” he said. “Some said they heard around three ‘pops’ and ran into nearby local stores to be safe.”

The White House said top aides told President Barack Obama about the shooting around 9:30 a.m. The shooting does not appear to be linked to terrorism, authorities said.

Local and federal authorities who converged on the building around 9 a.m. closed several streets around Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, snarling traffic in the heart of Manhattan.

Shortly after the incident, Bellevue reported that it was treating six victims suffering from gunshot wounds. None of the injuries was considered life-threatening.

The Empire State Building is one of the most famous skyscrapers in the world and one of New York City’s best-known tourist attractions.

Each year, about 4 million people visit the building’s two observation decks. At more than 1,453 feet tall, the landmark building reaches more than a quarter-mile into the sky.

The area also typically maintains a large security presence.

“There’s always a focus and concentration on the building,” retired police officer Lou Palumbo said. “That building gets special attention.”

The Empire State Building Co. said in a statement Friday that “the building is fully operational at this time” and that police are investigating the incident.

CNN’s Rose Arce, Poppy Harlow, Mark Norman, Rob Frehse, Leora Kapelus, Pauline Kim, Khara Lewin, Rande Iaboni, Eden Pontz and Dana Garrett contributed to this report.

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