Old office grudge triggered shooting

Years passed this way at the company,Hazan Imports,which sold handbags and belts,until Johnson was laid off two years ago.

Written by New York Times | Published: August 26, 2012 1:29:23 am

The two men at the center of a fatal shooting outside the Empire State Building on Friday had brushed shoulders for years — often literally,two large egos stuffed into a small office — and yet could hardly have been less alike.

Neighbours and co-workers described them: Jeffrey Johnson,58,a slight,meticulous artist,the first one to work in the morning and the last one out,without so much as a look outside for fresh air in between; Steven Ercolino,41,a well-built,confident salesman used to getting what he wanted when he wanted it. The artist chafed at what he saw as the salesman’s casual bossiness,they said,and the two never got along.

Years passed this way at the company,Hazan Imports,which sold handbags and belts,until Johnson was laid off two years ago.

The feud ended Friday,when Johnson gunned down Ercolino.

“I saw him pull a gun out from his jacket,and I thought to myself,‘Oh my God,he’s going to shoot him’ — and I wanted to turn and push Steve out of the way,” said Irene Timan,35,a co-worker. “But it was too late. Steve screamed,Jeff shot him,I just turned and ran.”

Johnson was shot to death by police officers moments later; nine people were wounded in gunfire.

All because of what? Those who worked with both men struggled to describe the root of their animosity hours later.

“You chalk it up to two guys being around each other too much,” one longtime co-worker said of their hostile relationship.

Around 2005,Johnson joined Hazan Imports. “This guy was very eccentric,” the co-worker said. “If he had a free minute,he would start doing origami. The things that came out of his mind were so original and creative,you knew that his mind didn’t work the same way as normal people.”

Ercolino arrived in 2005 as a vice president for sales. A year later,the artist’s discomfort with the salesman was on full display. Everyone “walked on eggshells” around him,co-workers said.

Not Ercolino. “If Steve needed something,rather than go to one of the owners,he’d go right to Jeff,” the longtime employee said. “‘I need a sample in blue,right away.’ And Jeff wouldn’t take orders from him.” It escalated. A decline in sales led to belt-tightening and Johnson,who could be replaced with a lower-paid employee,was an easy target. “He didn’t freak out,” the longtime co-worker said. “He wanted to keep his computer; fine,no problem. There were no threats,none of that.”

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