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Jeffrey Johnson, Empire State Building gunman, was 'depressed,' friend says

Police crime scene tape blocks 34th Street at

Police crime scene tape blocks 34th Street at Fifth Avenue after a fatal shooting outside the Empire State Building. (Aug. 24, 2012) Credit: AP

It was her last lunch with a friend, before he became a killer.

Three days before fashion designer Jeffrey Johnson, 58, ambushed and shot dead a former co-worker near the Empire State Building, he appeared "depressed" and "quiet," the friend, Andreina Adames of Manhattan, said in an interview.

"I knew he had things on his mind, but I didn't know what," said Adames, who had lunch with Johnson at a midtown eatery, much as they did every two weeks or so.

He had told her about the workplace feud, but did not mention it on Tuesday.

She offered to take him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to cheer him up, but he refused. And that was the last time she saw him.

Love for the arts

While neighbors regarded Johnson as a loner with few friends, Adames said she knew him as "kind" and "sensitive," someone who "loved art more than anything."

Their friendship of five years -- born from their mutual love of the arts and bird-watching -- was not romantic in nature, she said.

Johnson often confided to Adames his disdain for co-worker Steven Ercolino, the vice president of Hazan Import Corp., a women's fashion clothing and accessories company, from which Johnson had been laid off a year ago.

"He blamed him [Ercolino] for a lot of his problems," Adames said. "He said he would have made money and had a better life if he [Ercolino] wasn't against him."

On Friday, Johnson gunned down Ercolino, 41, at point-blank range, before being shot and killed by responding New York police officers. Nine civilian bystanders were wounded.

"I didn't think he [Johnson] could do this to him," Adames said.

History of tension

The disgruntled designer and his higher-up had a documented history of tension.

On April 27, 2011, both filed police reports at the Midtown South Precinct following a scuffle at their office.

Johnson arrived at the station first, complaining to police of a "physical confrontation," according to authorities.

Ercolino showed up 15 minutes later claiming Johnson "verbally annoyed him and attacked him inside the elevator."

Ercolino told police Johnson said: "I'm going to kill you."

John Koch, the property manager at the office building where the men worked, told The Associated Press that security camera footage of the April 2011 incident showed the two pushing and shoving.

The tussle ended when Ercolino pinned Johnson against the wall of the elevator by the throat, Koch said.

"There had been a long-standing dispute between the two of them," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said. "That is, for all intents and purposes, the motive."

Johnson's last act stood in contrast to the days he spent patiently tracking and photographing birds in Central Park.

An avid bird-watcher, he had taken dozens of photos for a New York City bird-watching blog, some devoted to Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk whose exploits have gained wide attention.

"Gently swaying in a breeze was Pale Male in his south cedar Hill pine," Johnson wrote in a caption for one photo. "Same one he graced last evening and many other times."

Sold artwork online

Johnson sold T-shirts of his artwork on a website,, featuring cartoonlike pictures of buxom models standing next to muscle cars. The site touts the art as depicting "alternate realities."

He studied graphic arts and illustration at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla., from 1978 to 1980, but never graduated, said Christine Meeker Lange, a school spokeswoman.

Johnson served four years in the Coast Guard in the 1970s, according to police officials, but a Coast Guard spokesman said Saturday they were still working to confirm his enlistment.

Aside from police investigators combing through Johnson's apartment Saturday, the building's superintendent, Guillermo Suarez, 72, said neither family nor friends had reached out to inquire about Johnson's belongings.

"Nobody knew him," said Suarez, who noted that Johnson never joined the tenants for drinks or barbecues in the backyard. "He was like a ghost. He never spoke to anybody."

With Aisha al-Muslim

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