Secret life of the Empire State killer

The fatal shooting of two men is just one more episode in America's summer of gun sprees

New York

He had lost his job at a women's clothing and accessories importer across from the Empire State Building over a year ago. Yet every morning the shy 58-year-old would emerge from his Upper East Side home in the same tan suit and melt unnoticed into the Manhattan rush.

His was a kind of invisibility that is hardly rare in great metropolises like New York. He never had guests in his modest flat on East 86th Street. Nobody could recall seeing any girlfriends, or indeed any friends at all. He did, however, find solace in watching the birds and ducks in nearby Central Park.

On Friday, however, Jeffrey Johnson broke his routine. Instead of heading to his neighbourhood McDonald's as he had every day since being laid off and returning home half an hour later, he went to his old place of work, Hazan Import Corp on West 33rd Street. From a canvas bag, Johnson drew a pistol, identified a former work colleague crossing the street, approached him and shot him in the head.

Thus the awful pattern of gun violence in the summer 2012 in America has continued. Bullets sprayed into an audience up late in a Colorado cinema to catch the first screening of the new Batman movie. Mayhem was unleashed inside the walls of a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. And now the tourist heart of Manhattan is turned into the Wild West.

That was how it was for a few brief moments here on Friday. The murder victim Stephen Ercolino, 41, a vice-president of Hazan against whom Johnson had seemingly held a long-time grudge, fell instantly to the ground. Johnson then shot him again, even after he was down, then turned and walked away, hoping again to vanish.

Not this time. Two construction workers who had witnessed the killing rushed after him as he turned left on to Fifth Avenue, past the entrance to the Empire State Building, where they alerted police officers.

Exactly what happened then is now under investigation by the police department. What they will have to determine is whether the injuries suffered by nine bystanders were the result, as suspected, of bullets fired by the officers.

Nothing is predictable when guns are drawn, including the fate of the shooter. If they survive, they become top billing in the US judicial calendar like the Colorado shooter, James Holmes, or Jared Lee Loughner, the young man who almost killed Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Or they perish at the scene of their crime.

Johnson is in the latter group. It is now for the public records and a few neighbours to define him. We know a little already, about his years in Sarasota, Florida, where he studied art and where, by the way, he purchased his gun. After moving to New York, he got the job at Hazan in 2005. He had a cat, was very neat and talked to very few people aside from the birdwatchers he would occasionally join in Central Park.

Aside from the finding of a website filled with fantasy drawings of curvaceous women, fighter planes and fast cars, those few people who had even noticed Johnson were left to wonder what they had missed. The usual question arose. How could a man who looked so, well, ordinary, have done so terrible a thing?

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