NEW YORK (AP) — A laid-off clothing designer fatally shot an executive at his former company outside the Empire State Building on Friday, setting off a chaotic showdown with police in front of one of the world’s best-known landmarks. Officers killed the gunman and at least nine others were wounded, some by stray police gunfire, authorities said.
The gunshots rang out on the Fifth Avenue side of the building at around 9 a.m., when pedestrians on their way to work packed sidewalks and merchants were opening their shops.
“People were yelling ‘Get down! Get down!’” said Marc Engel, an accountant who was on a bus in the area when he heard the shots. “It took about 15 seconds, a lot of pop, pop, pop, pop, one shot after the other.”
Afterward, he saw the sidewalks littered with the wounded, including one person “dripping enough blood to leave a stream.”
Wearing an olive suit and tie and carrying a briefcase, Jeffrey Johnson walked up to the import company vice president, Steven Ercolino, put a gun to his head and fired without saying a word, authorities said. A witness told investigators that Johnson shot Ercolino once in the head and, after he fell to the sidewalk, stood over him and shot him four more times.
“Jeffrey just came from behind two cars, pulled out his gun, put it up to Steve’s head and shot him,” said Carol Timan, whose daughter, Irene, was walking to Hazan Imports at the time with Ercolino.
The gunman walked away and calmly turned up 5th Avenue, where he blended in with the crowd, police said.
A construction worker who saw the shooting followed Johnson and alerted two police officers, a detail regularly assigned to patrol city landmarks like the 1,454-foot skyscraper since the 9/11 terror attacks, officials said.
There were conflicting accounts about whether Johnson fired at the police officers or just pointed the gun at them.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly initially said the officers were fired upon, but later said police were investigating. Johnson can be seen on video reaching into a bag, pulling out a .45-caliber pistol and pointing it at officers, Kelly said.
The two officers drew their weapons and fired 16 rounds, killing Johnson, Kelly said.
“These officers ... had absolutely no choice,” Kelly said. “This individual took a gun out very close to them and perhaps fired at them.”
Kelly said investigators believe police may be responsible for some of the injuries, based on the gunman’s weapon. Johnson’s semi-automatic weapon was equipped to fire at least eight rounds; at least one round was left in the clip, police said. Another loaded magazine was in his 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.
“New York City, as you know, is the safest big city in the country, and we are on pace to have a record low number of murders this year,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. “But we are not immune to the national problem of gun violence,” he said about the shooting, which comes in the wake of mass shootings inside a Colorado movie theater and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.