9 injured outside Empire State Building were hit by police gunfire

August 25, 2012

All nine people injured during a dramatic confrontation between police and a gunman outside the Empire State Building were wounded by gunfire from the two officers, police said Saturday, citing ballistics evidence.

The veteran patrolmen who opened fire on the suit-clad gunman, Jeffrey Johnson, had only an instant to react when he whirled around and pointed a .45-caliber pistol at them as they approached from behind on a busy sidewalk, police said.

Officer Craig Matthews shot seven times, and Officer Robert Sinishtaj fired nine times, police said. Neither had ever fired his weapon before while on patrol.

The volley of gunfire felled Johnson in seconds and left nine other people bleeding on the sidewalk.

In the initial chaos Friday, it wasn’t clear whether Johnson or the officers were responsible for the trail of wounded, but, based on ballistic and other evidence, “it appears that all nine of the victims were struck either by fragments or by bullets fired by police,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told reporters Saturday at a community event in Harlem.

Police officials have said the officers appeared to have had no choice but to shoot Johnson, whose body had 10 bullet wounds in the chest, arms and legs.

The officers confronted Johnson as he walked, casually, down the street after gunning down a former co-worker on the sidewalk outside the office they once shared. The shooting happened at 9 a.m., as the neighborhood bustled with people arriving for work.

The gunman and his victim, Steve Ercolino, had a history of workplace squabbles before Johnson was laid off a year ago from their company, Hazan Import. At one point, the two men had grappled in an elevator.

John Koch, the property manager at the office building where the men worked, said security camera footage showed the two pushing and shoving in that previous incident. The tussle ended when Ercolino, a much larger man, pinned Johnson against the wall of the elevator by the throat, Koch said. Ercolino let him go after a few moments, and the two men went their separate ways.

“They didn’t like each other,” Koch said.

Johnson was described as an eccentric T-shirt designer and avid bird-watcher who wore a suit very day, even when photographing hawks in Central Park.

Police said that after shooting Ercolino on Friday, he walked away as if nothing had happened.

Alerted by a construction worker, officers Matthews and Sinishtaj gave chase as Johnson rounded a corner and walked along Fifth Avenue in front of the landmark skyscraper.

A security videotape from the scene shows several civilians — including three sitting on a bench a few feet away — scattering as the officers opened fire.

Police have determined that three people were struck by whole bullets — two of which were removed from victims at a hospital — and the rest were grazed “by fragments of some sort,” Kelly said.

Two women with leg wounds and a man with a wound to his buttocks required surgery and remained hospitalized Saturday. They were listed in stable condition.

Matthews, 39, and Sinishtaj, 40, joined the nation’s largest police department 15 years ago.

Matthews had drawn attention this year by suing the New York Police Department, accusing his superiors of unfairly punishing him for not meeting arrest quotas. A judge threw out the complaint.

The union representing the two officers didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

The shooting didn’t deter visitors from flocking Saturday to the Empire State Building as usual.

Patricia Flynn, 57, a retired schoolteacher, visited the building’s peak with her mother, who once worked in the skyscraper as a secretary.

“But I didn’t tell her what happened,” said Flynn, adding that her mother was unaware of Friday’s shooting. “And she really enjoyed the view.”

A group of 31 tourists from France held a meeting Friday night at their nearby hotel to decide whether to cancel their planned Empire State Building visit.

“We were scared, and we thought it was a risk,” said Catherine Krukar, 38, a teacher.

But they decided to go ahead, she said after descending from the observation tower,

“We know it can happen anywhere, and we wanted to see the Empire State Building,” Krukar said. “It was beautiful!”

— Associated Press

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