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Gunman near Empire State Building said to keep a strict routine

August 24, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik
  • New York police guard the entrance of the building where alleged gunman Jeffrey Johnson lived.
New York police guard the entrance of the building where alleged gunman… (Louis Lanzano / Associated…)

NEW YORK -- Jeffrey Johnson, who police identified as the gunman outside the Empire State Building, was described by neighbors as a quiet man with a strict morning ritual: Dressed in a suit with a New York Times tucked under his arm, he would walk around the corner and return shortly after with a takeout McDonald's bag.

 “Seven days a week, he would leave between 7:30 and 8 in the morning, come back 20 minutes later, and go into the building, always with the newspaper and always with the McDonald's bag,” said Guillermo Suarez, the building superintendent where Johnson lived. “I'd never see him again until the next morning.”

Police said Johnson, 58, had been fired from his job at a shop outside the Empire State Building and returned there Friday morning, fatally shot a former co-worker and then opened fire on police officers in a chaotic, rush-hour gunfight. Johnson was killed and nine others were wounded in the exchange of gunfire, city officials said. The first man killed has been identified as Steve Ercolino, 41.

Before the shooting erupted, commuters crowded the street and tourists waited in a long line to visit the Empire State Building’s observation deck.

Some of the nine people who were injured may have been hit or grazed by police gunfire, officials said, but that none of their injuries was life-threatening.

Johnson lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the second-floor of an unassuming residence on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The six-story building sits above several below-ground business, including a pet grooming shop and a massage studio. He had lived there about 18 months, Suarez said, renting the apartment from a private owner.

The super had never seen the inside of Johnson's apartment and said he had witnessed only one visitor to Johnson in the past year and a half, an elderly woman Suarez thought was Johnson's mother.

Suarez said he saw Johnson leaving the building Friday morning at the usual time, a little before 8 a.m., and assumed he was on his normal McDonald's run; Suarez then stepped away from the building and learned of the shooting from the news.

When police arrived, Suarez said he was surprised to find that Johnson had left the door to his apartment unlocked.

Gisela Casella, 71, who has lived in the faded yellow-brick building since 1974 said she would see Johnson while she was walking her dog every morning — and he was more engaged in her pet than a morning chat with her. 

“I would see him coming from down the block and he would just quickly say hi to me, but then he would run up and say 'Buddy, Buddy,' Casella said, demonstrating how he would affectionately pet her dog, a terrier-Chihuahua mix. “He was always very excited to see Buddy.”

Casela, who lives on the fifth floor of the building, said she would frequently hear early morning vacuuming coming from Johnson’s apartment, as well as persistent meowing from at least two cats. She had learned from him last year that one of his cats had died, she said, describing his reaction as low-key but upset.

On Friday afternoon, about a half-dozen NYPD officers were stationed outside the building. At one point, several federal agents wearing jackets identifying them as agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives entered the residence and were inside for at least two hours.

Suarez said the building, located on East 82nd Street between Second and Third avenues, has a friendly, social quality.

“We have barbecues and parties and gatherings all the time,” Suarez said. “But Johnson never came to any of them.”

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steven.zeitchik@latimes.com

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