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NY gunman described as quiet, friendly neighbour

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Neighbours of Jeffrey Johnson assumed the man who greeted them as he left home in a suit each morning was on his way to work -- until Friday when police say he started a gunfight near the Empire State Building that left him and a former co-worker dead.

It turns out that Johnson, 58, had not been heading off all those mornings to his job as an accessories designer at Hazan Imports. He lost that position a year ago, police said.

On Friday, armed with a loaded .45-caliber handgun, he returned to his old workplace on West 33rd Street near the Empire Street Building.

At about 9 a.m., he shot and killed a 41-year-old Steve Ercolino, a former Hazan colleague, before being killed by police, officials said. Eight bystanders were wounded in the hail of bullets.

Johnson's neighbours on Manhattan's Upper East Side were left wondering how the gunman could be the same quiet apartment resident who doted on his cats and was kind to his neighbour's dog.

"He wore the same suit every day," said Gisella Casella, a school crossing guard who lives in the same apartment building as Johnson on East 82nd Street.

"I would only see him in the morning. I thought he went off to work," she said.

The building superintendent said Johnson passed him every day between 7:30 and 8:30 in the morning on his way to a nearby McDonald's. "He says, 'Hi Bill,' and keeps going," said the superintendent, Guillermo Suarez, who is known as "Bill" along the quiet block of residential apartments.

"It was the same routine every day, only he didn't come back to the building," Suarez said, meaning today. "That was the only difference."

Casella described Johnson as "the nicest guy" who talked about his two cats and played with her dog, Buddy.

"Nothing seemed to bother him," she said. "He loved animals. I thought he was the sweetest guy.

"I think he snapped."

A website called St. Jolly's Art is registered to Johnson and features illustrations that bear his signature. Many are fantasy scenes featuring pirate ships, classic cars, stylized motorcycles and shapely women. The drawings could be ordered printed on T-shirts, cards and mugs.

One illustration shows a detailed drawing of a military fighter plane, and in the caption Johnson wrote how he decided on that model over another. "I'm a sensible man," he wrote in the caption.

A slight man with brownish hair, Johnson lived in the building about 18 months, according to the superintendent, who said he doubted many neighbours knew Johnson well.

"Everybody is young people. They get up, go to work, come back late at night," he said. "So if you are talking about somebody getting to know him, I doubt it very much."

Ashley Halverson, who moved out of the building in April, recalled like other residents that Johnson was "quiet and reserved" and always wore a suit. "I didn't really talk to him very much. Just said hello and goodbye."

(Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Peter Cooney and Toni Reinhold)