NEW YORK • A gunman who killed a former co-worker in cold blood in the shadow of the Empire State Building and then was shot dead by police after he turned his gun on them spent long hours in the quiet of Central Park, photographing hawks and marveling over nature’s beauty.
His victim was a gregarious salesman, beloved by his nieces and nephews as the fun uncle who could talk with equal expertise about the New York Jets and the women’s fashion accessories he sold.
Investigators on Saturday were trying to piece together what caused Jeffrey Johnson, a T-shirt designer, to ambush Steve Ercolino, an apparel company vice president, a day earlier outside the Manhattan offices of the company where they once were colleagues.
Police said Johnson hid behind a car and then killed Ercolino with five gunshots as he arrived for work. Johnson then was shot by two police officers who confronted him on a busy sidewalk.
Security camera footage showed the officers had only an instant to react when Johnson suddenly turned as they approached and pointed his gun at them, his arm cocked as if to fire.
Their encounter was over in eight seconds. The officers, who had been standing nearly close enough to shake hands with Johnson and had no opportunity to take cover, fired almost immediately.
Nine bystanders were wounded in the 16-shot volley, likely by stray or ricocheting police bullets. None of their injuries was life-threatening, police said.
Police investigating Johnson’s killing of Ercolino were eyeing bad blood between them from when they worked together at Hazan Import, a garment district business where Ercolino was a vice president of sales.
Johnson and Ercolino had traded harassment accusations when they worked together, police said, and when Johnson was laid off from the company a year ago he blamed Ercolino, saying he hadn’t aggressively marketed his new T-shirt line.
After Johnson’s layoff, neighbors said, he continued to leave his apartment every day in a suit.
Internet records listed Johnson as the administrator of the website for a business called St. Jolly’s Art, which sold iron-on graphic art for T-shirts. Art for sale on the site included stylized drawings of fighter planes and muscle cars and whimsical "seafaring vignettes" featuring pirate maidens and tall ships.
Johnson also was part of a community of bird watchers and photographers who document hawks and other wildlife living in Central Park, a few blocks from his home.
In one email to another bird watcher who works at The Associated Press, Johnson wrote tenderly about spending a winter night watching ducks in the park.
"Near midnight by the Harlem Meer I watched a little ‘flotilla’ of Mallards swimming and softly honking ... fifteen degree temp and they were carrying on unfazed. Just remarkable," he wrote.
His photographs of Central Park’s hawk population appeared regularly on blogs tracking the birds.
A neighbor who often saw Johnson, 58, said he was always alone.
"I always felt bad," said Gisela Casella, who lived a few floors above Johnson in a modest apartment building on the Upper East Side. "I said, ‘Doesn’t he have a girlfriend?’ I never saw him with anybody."
Ercolino, 41, was described by his relatives as the opposite of a quiet loner.
His eldest brother, Paul Ercolino, said he was a gregarious salesman who often traveled, had a loving girlfriend and was the life of any family gathering.Next Page >
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