By Sophia Hollander, Joseph De Avila and Jennifer Maloney
A fatal shooting near the Empire State Building on Friday was the violent culmination of a workplace dispute that had been brewing between two former co-workers for more than a year, according to interviews with colleagues, building officials and police.
Jeffrey Johnson, 58 years old, and Steven Ercolino, 41, worked together for what appears to be about six years at Hazan Import Corp., a Midtown company that designs and imports women’s apparel and accessories. But the relationship was marked by animosity and, in at least one case before Friday, a physical confrontation.
Mr. Ercolino, an account executive, was regarded by others in his building, relatives and friends as a gregarious colleague, an avid sports fan and a devoted uncle who populated a Myspace page from several years ago with photos of his arms around glamorous women.
By contrast, Mr. Johnson was lately quiet and withdrawn, neighbors said. For the past 18 months, he lived alone with cats and received few visitors at his Upper East Side apartment, prompting a neighbor to express the hope that he would someday find a girlfriend.
Last year, their lives seemed to diverge for good: Mr. Johnson was fired after a T-shirt line he designed underperformed, officials said, while Mr. Ercolino remained at the company as an account executive. Mr. Johnson, who officials said blamed Mr. Ercolino for not promoting his products aggressively enough, waited for his former colleague outside their West 33rd Street office and shot him once in the head and several times in the body.
Mr. Johnson was killed by police as he walked away from the scene; nine bystanders were wounded in the gunfire, likely by police bullets and other shrapnel. None of the injuries were life-threatening.
The two men had clashed at least once in the past. Before Mr. Johnson was fired last year, he and Mr. Ercolino engaged in a shoving match inside an elevator, said an official with the building where Hazan Import is located. “They had a fight,” said the official, who said he watched the security feed of the incident several times, and added that it appeared Mr. Johnson attacked first. “Steve picked that guy up by the throat and put him against the wall.”
It was unclear if charges were filed in the incident. In April 2011, both men registered complaints with police at the Midtown South Precinct, each accusing the other of making threats, police said. No restraining orders were issued.
Mr. Johnson maintained health insurance through the company, and returned to the building “periodically,” said New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne.
“We have talked to some people who said that he was not barred from returning, although there were some people who felt his presence made them uneasy,” Mr. Browne said.
Colleagues called Mr. Ercolino a constantly cheerful presence.
“Always smiling,” said Bo Tieri, who works at another company in the building. “Always happy.”
Mr. Ercolino graduated from SUNY Oneonta in 1992 with a major in business and a minor in fashion and rooted for the Mets and Jets, according to his LinkedIn profile and Myspace pages, the latter of which appeared to be last updated several years ago. Mr. Ercolino had worked at Hazan since 2005, according to his LinkedIn page. A Hazan employee who answered the phone Friday declined to comment.
He had a fondness for mafia movies, international travel and a passion for reading history, to learn from the past’s “mistakes,” he wrote. Though, he cautioned, “history does repeat itself.”
He didn’t have children, but Mr. Ercolino was an “incredible” uncle, said his sister-in-law, who gave her name as Andrea. He wrote on his Myspace page that “spending time with fam & friends most important to me.”
A man who answered the phone at Mr. Ercolino’s parents’ home in upstate Warwick declined to comment. Later, no one answered their door.
By contrast, Mr. Johnson lived alone and rarely entertained visitors, preferring to tend to his cats, said neighbors.
Mr. Johnson, who served in the Coast Guard between 1973 and 1977 before receiving an honorable discharge, moved into a second-floor apartment in a six-floor walk-up building on the East 82nd Street about 18 months ago.
He quickly assembled a consistent routine: dressing in the same brown suit “every single day,” before leaving at 8:30 a.m. to buy breakfast at McDonald’s and returning home, said building superintendent Guillermo Suarez. “He comes back, he goes upstairs and that’s the end,” Mr. Suarez said.
Mr. Johnson appeared to have a website of designs of vintage cars, motorcycles, and other transportation devices that could be ordered on a variety of items, including shirts, cards and coffee mugs. It is unclear if or when he ran that as a business.
Neighbor Gisela Casella, 72, said they greeted each other in the mornings when she took her mixed terrier Chihuahua out for a walk. Mr. Johnson would pet her dog every day but wouldn’t talk much, she said. “I would see him every morning all dressed up,” she said. “I thought he went to work every day. I didn’t know he was unemployed.”
Still, she found him polite, if distant. “I would always say he deserved a girlfriend,” she said.
Source: The Wall Street Journal