MANHATTAN — The gunman who shot a coworker dead at point blank range outside the Empire State Building Friday morning, sparking a chaotic shoot-out between the shooter and cops, had a long-standing feud with the victim, according to sources and friends.
Jeffrey Johnson, 58, harbored such ill will against ex-coworker Steven Ercolino, 41, of Warwick, N.Y., that he threatened to kill him more than a year before he gunned Ercolino down on a 33rd Street sidewalk, sources said. Johnson's threat preceded his layoff last year from Hazan Imports, on West 33rd Street, where he worked as a women's accessories and T-shirt designer, according to sources.
"These guys, they never got along," said David Ancona, 42, who works on the second floor of the building.
During the incident eight months ago, Johnson allegedly cornered Ercolino in an elevator, put him in a headlock and said that he was going to get him, according to the sources.
The coworkers also accused each other of harassment in complaints they filed against each other in April 2011, a source said. The two men filed the complaints within 15 minutes of each other at the Midtown South stationhouse, sources said.
Johnson worked for six years at Hazan, but downsizing cost him his job last year, sources said. Johnson blamed Ercolino for his layoff because he felt Ercolino, an account executive who sold Hazan's product lines, failed to sell enough to keep the company healthy financially, sources said.
On Friday, Johnson went back to Hazan Friday to collect money, confronting Ercolino outside of the office near the Empire State Building just after 9 a.m.
According to police, the gunman whipped a .45 caliber gun out of a bag and pumped three shots into Ercolino, sending bystanders scrambling for safety.
"I saw a heated argument. I saw screaming and immediately turned," said witness Joseph Cohen, 27, who works in the Empire State Building.
"I heard a couple of gunshots. On the sixth or seventh shot, I actually saw the [guy] he was aiming for go down."
According to police, Johnson walked away and tucked his gun back in his bag, but was followed by a construction worker who notified anti-terror police on footpost nearby.
The cops confronted the gunman, who allegedly pulled the .45 caliber semi-automatic out again and got off one shot, sparking a hail of gunfire from officers.
Cops fired 16 times, killing Johnson, and leaving nine others injured, sources said. One bullet was found in Johnson's gun, according to police.
Those who knew Ercolino said that he was a nice guy who was into fashion.
"Steve was a good guy," said Ancona. "He was just an honest, hard-working guy. Always working."