NYPD: Police bullets hit all nine wounded in Empire State shootout

The police said ballistics indicated that all nine people wounded in Friday's gun battle outside the Empire State building were hit by police bullets.

By , The Associated Press

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    A policeman in riot gear keeps guard at the scene of a shooting near the Empire State Building in New York Friday.
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All nine people wounded during a dramatic confrontation between police and a gunman outside the Empire State Building were struck by bullets fired by the two officers, police said Saturday, citing ballistics evidence.

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

Officer Craig Matthews shot seven times. Officer Robert Sinishtaj fired nine times, police said. Neither had ever fired their weapons before on a patrol.

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The volley of gunfire felled Johnson in just a few 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 on Saturday at a community event in Harlem.

He reiterated that the officers appeared to have no choice but to shoot Johnson, whose body had 10 bullets wounds in the chest, arms and legs.

"I believe it was handled well," Kelly said.

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 from their company, Hazan Import Corp., a year ago. At one point, the two men had grappled physically 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. 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.

After shooting Ercolino, Johnson, an eccentric T-shirt designer and avid bird-watcher who wore a suit every day, even when photographing hawks in Central Park, 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 only 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 the hospital — and the rest were grazed "by fragments of some sort," Kelly said.

Three people remained hospitalized, all in stable condition, police said.

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

Matthews had drawn attention earlier this year by filing a lawsuit against the New York Police Department that accused his superiors of unfairly punishing him for not meeting arrest quotas. A judge threw out the complaint.

There was no immediate response to a message left with the union representing the two officers.

The shooting didn't deter tourists from flocking to the Empire State Building as usual on Saturday.

Patricia Flynn, 57, a retired schoolteacher, visited the building's peak with her elderly 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 all over 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 in the end, they went ahead with the visit, 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!"

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