The two men at the centre of a fatal shooting outside the Empire State Building on Friday had brushed shoulders for years often literally, two large egos stuffed into a small office and yet could hardly have been less alike.

Neighbours and co-workers described them: Jeffrey T. Johnson, 58, a slight, meticulous artist, the first one to work in the morning and the last one out, without so much as a look outside for fresh air in between; Steven Ercolino, 41, a well-built, confident salesman used to getting what he wanted when he wanted it.

The artist chafed at what he saw as the salesman’s casual bossiness, they said, and the two never got along.

Years passed this way at the company, Hazan Imports, which sold handbags and belts, until Johnson was laid off almost two years ago.

And yet, the casual observer would not have known it, to look at him. He put on the same suit every morning: the Upper East Side’s own Willy Loman, dressing for a job he no longer had.

Months after his dismissal, he showed up at the building where he once worked, across West 33rd Street from the famous skyscraper, and confronted the salesman, a much larger man, in an elevator. The two came close enough to blows — Johnson throwing an elbow, Ercolino grabbing his throat and threatening him — that it was reported to the police.

The feud ended Friday. Johnson left his East 82nd Street walk-up in his suit, as he did every other day. And Ercolino took the PATH train from Hoboken, N.J., where he lived with his girlfriend, to the West 33rd Street building near Fifth Avenue. A co-worker saw him and shouted for him to wait, then they walked toward the entrance together.

They were almost there when the co-worker, Irene Timan, 35, saw Johnson lurking behind a white van.

“I saw him pull a gun out from his jacket, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, he’s going to shoot him’ and I wanted to turn and push Steve out of the way,” Timan said. “But it was too late. Steve screamed, Jeff shot him, and I just turned and ran.”

Ercolino died. Johnson was shot to death moments later by two police officers after pulling the gun again and aiming at them, according to the police; nine people were wounded in the gunfire. — New York Times News Service

More In: International | News