• U.S.


17 minute read
Richard Lacayo

When Gianni Versace walked down the street in Miami Beach, he had every reason to think he had created the world. If fashion has joined Hollywood and sports among the great public spectacles of our time, Versace was one big reason why. And if Miami Beach is now a laboratory of instant gratification, full of clubs and in-line skaters and muscle guys with deltoids like the gas tanks on a Harley–in some measure that was Versace’s doing too. Six years ago, when the city was threadbare, he fell in love with it, and soon began converting a hotel and a crumbling apartment building into his comically scrumptious mansion, one of his four homes around the world. And where Versace went, the models and movie stars soon followed.

Andrew Cunanan created his own worlds too. They just didn’t work out. For years he had insinuated himself into the lives of well-off, older gay men. An adroit and tireless liar, he told friends in San Diego he was Andrew DeSilva, a man with a factory in Mexico, or wealthy parents in the Philippines, or a wife and daughter–the ones in the photo he would pass around that he got from who knows where. But by last April, when police say he started a cross-country killing spree that climaxed in the fatal shooting of Versace, all his worlds were collapsing. His last rich guy had dropped him. He was gaining so much weight that few would give him a second look. He might have discovered he had the AIDS virus.

The worlds of Gianni Versace and Andrew Cunanan may have first intersected in the early 1990s, when both were in San Francisco–Versace to design costumes for a production of the San Francisco Opera. Erik Gruenwald, now a Los Angeles attorney, remembers that Cunanan approached him at Colossus, a local gay club, with exciting news. “I just met Gianni Versace,” Cunanan told Gruenwald. “I said, ‘Sure, and I’m Coco Chanel.'”A forthcoming article in Vanity Fair reports that Cunanan, now 27, had encountered Versace among a crowd backstage at the opera, and that Versace spoke to him, apparently thinking they had met at Lake Como in Italy, where Versace has a home. FBI agents told TIME that Cunanan and Versace probably did meet in San Francisco, though the nature of their relationship, if any, is still a mystery.

By the time their paths began drawing ominously closer two months ago, Cunanan’s aggressively social personality, authorities say, had turned murderously sociopathic. The first victims in his path were two gay friends in Minnesota, a Chicago businessman and a New Jersey cemetery caretaker. Just days after the New Jersey murder, on May 12, Cunanan apparently resurfaced in Miami Beach and began working his way into Versace’s world. A friend of Cunanan’s has told FBI agents that Cunanan had a crush on someone in Versace’s entourage, perhaps a boyfriend. They suspect jealousy might have set off his next violent explosion.

Versace lived directly on busy Ocean Drive, a 15-block strip of Art Deco hotels and sidewalk cafes facing the oceanfront. He didn’t even like the mansion’s security videocameras to be recording. In the Versace household, everybody had regular routines that would be easy for a killer to know. One of those routines was Versace’s morning walk to the News Cafe, four blocks from his home, to buy magazines and a coffee.

On Tuesday Versace headed out around 8:30 a.m. According to some witnesses, he approached the cafe that morning by an unusual route, coming from the other side of the street, though his home and the cafe were on the same side. “He walked past the entrance, circled back around and then went in,” says Stephanie Vanover, the News Cafe’s hostess. “It’s almost as though he knew someone was following him.”

On his return to the house, just as he was opening the ornate wrought-iron gate, Versace was approached suddenly by a white man in his mid-20s. Some witnesses described an ambush-style killing in which the attacker pumped one bullet into Versace’s head from behind, then another as he fell to the ground. But two other witnesses, who were later questioned by FBI agents, have told TIME that first Versace appeared to struggle briefly with his attacker over a bag. “The next thing I know, I heard pow, pow, and I ducked on the ground,” says Romeo Jacques, 19, a dishwasher.

As the attacker fled along Ocean Drive, at least one horrified onlooker pursued him at a distance. At some point, he swung around and aimed his pistol but didn’t fire. Disappearing into a public parking garage, the shooter got into a red 1995 Chevrolet pickup, changed clothes, then fled again on foot. At the sound of the gunfire, meanwhile, Versace’s companion D’Amico had rushed from inside the house to find the designer face up on the pavement in a spreading pool of his own blood. At the University of Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital, doctors declared him dead. Ballistics tests later found that the gun that killed Versace was the same one that had killed two of the earlier victims.

Though it now had stolen South Carolina plates, the pickup was quickly identified as the one belonging to the murdered New Jersey caretaker. It had been parked in the garage almost five weeks. Inside the truck were Cunanan’s passport and a check with his name printed on it. Also inside were eyeglasses, a jacket and an expensive wallet, all belonging to Lee Miglin, the Chicago developer. A ticket stub found in the truck was traced to a shop where, on May 12, Cunanan had pawned a gold coin belonging to Miglin–an indication, FBI agents believe, that Cunanan is almost broke.

“I wouldn’t call the case a mystery, because he leaves behind voluminous amounts of evidence,” says an FBI agent involved in the chase. But suddenly what had been a frustrated and some say haphazard manhunt became a furious one. The FBI offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to Cunanan’s arrest. On Saturday night, Miami Beach police said they were exploring the possibility that he may be masquerading as a woman to elude capture. “He may have shaved all of his body hair to enhance this appearance,” said a spokesman. Cunanan was fingered as a possible suspect in two other murders in the Miami area. He has been ruled out as a suspect in the killing of Silvio Alfonso, 44, a Cuban-born physician whose body was found on Thursday in Miami Springs. But police are still investigating whether Cunanan may have been connected to the murder of a gay man, Casey Patrick Sigler, 41, who was beaten to death in his apartment on May 12. Neighbors say he came home that night with a man who fit Cunanan’s description and that his car was also stolen.

In fact, Cunanan came close to being captured just four days before Versace’s murder. A sandwich-shop employee, G. Kenneth Brown, told TIME he had recognized a man ordering a tuna sub as Cunanan. Brown took the order back to the kitchen and sneaked to a telephone to dial 911. Police were dispatched, but while Brown was still on the phone, a co-worker took the customer’s money ($4.12, including three silver dollars) and unwittingly let him walk out the door. When a Miami Beach police cruiser arrived five minutes later, the suspect was gone. When Brown later learned that Cunanan was a suspect in Versace’s murder, he said, “I wanted to throw up. I was thinking, If only they had caught him, Versace would still be alive.”

It was the Normandy Plaza Hotel, just a block down the road, where Cunanan apparently checked in on May 12 and holed up for two months before the murder. According to the hotel’s owner, James Falin, investigators later seized a pair of electric clippers and some fashion magazines from Cunanan’s $39-a-night efficiency. Though law-enforcement officials won’t confirm that Cunanan stayed there, Falin is convinced Cunanan is the man who checked into Room 205 two months ago, changed rooms three times and left a day or two before the Versace murder, still owing a night’s rent.

Some experts on murder say the term serial killer, which usually describes someone who returns to a normal routine between bursts of rage, doesn’t quite fit Andrew Cunanan. They’ve been rolling out “spree killer.” It’s more appropriate for somebody on a full-time lethal tear, acting sometimes with sadistic fury, sometimes with a quick and cold-blooded bullet to the head. A theory gaining currency in the FBI is that Cunanan has been carrying out a crazed vendetta, aiming to settle scores with people he knew, that he has moved purposefully on a cross-country trek toward his lethal assignations.

That odyssey began in San Diego, where Cunanan spent most of his life. Cunanan had told friends that David Madson, 33, a Minneapolis, Minn., architect, was “the love of my life.” But Cunanan may have thought Madson, who had grown suspicious of him, was involved with one of Cunanan’s best friends, Jeffrey Trail, 28, a former San Diego Navy officer. In November Trail moved to Minnesota to take a job with a propane-gas company.

Around this time Cunanan may have learned he was HIV positive. A San Diego AIDS counselor, Mike Dudley, told TIME that Cunanan approached him about six months ago and asked several questions about AIDS. According to Dudley, Cunanan blurted, “If I find out who did this to me, I’m gonna get them!” Cunanan told friends he would be moving to San Francisco. But first, he said, he had some business to do in Minneapolis. On April 29, Trail’s body was found in Madson’s apartment. He had been beaten to death with 25 to 30 furious blows from a claw hammer. Four days later, police found Madson’s body dumped near a lake about 50 miles north of Minneapolis. He had been shot several times in the head and back with Golden Saber .40-cal. bullets.

In early May, Madson’s missing red Jeep Cherokee was noticed collecting parking tickets near the home of Miglin, 72, a millionaire Chicago developer. Days earlier Miglin’s body, wrapped in duct tape with space left at his nose so he could breathe, had been found under a car in the garage of his Gold Coast home. His killer had stabbed him with pruning shears, then sawed through his throat with a gardening saw. The killer had also nibbled on some ham and an apple, then made off with Miglin’s green 1994 Lexus.

It was found on May 9 in rural Pennsville, N.J., near the body of William Reese, 45, a cemetery caretaker. Police found him shot in the head, again with a Golden Saber .40-cal. bullet. Reese’s red 1995 Chevrolet pickup was gone. The FBI believes Cunanan spent a few days in New York City’s Greenwich Village, then headed south on the New Jersey Turnpike. Along the way Cunanan replaced the truck’s plates with South Carolina license plates that he apparently stole from a K Mart parking lot off I-95 in Florence, S.C. Law-enforcement officials soon began picking up evidence that Cunanan, who had been placed on the FBI’s ten-most-wanted list, was in South Florida, where many witnesses saw him on the club circuit.

The real Cunanan, hidden behind layers of his own lies, has never been easy to find. Though he liked to tell people he was the son of a wealthy Philippine sugar-plantation owner, his father Modesto, born in the Philippines, was a U.S. Navy veteran who later became a stockbroker. The youngest of four children, Cunanan grew up in middle-class Rancho Bernardo, Calif., a San Diego suburb. At the elite Bishop’s School in La Jolla, he was popular and a little outrageous. Openly gay as a teenager, he once showed up at a school function in a red patent-leather jumpsuit that he said was a gift from his much older date.

After graduating in 1987–and being voted by his classmates “Most Likely Not to Be Forgotten”–Cunanan moved on to the University of California at San Diego, where he majored in history. During his freshman year, his world fell apart. According to court papers filed last year by Cunanan’s mother MaryAnn, who was then seeking a legal separation, Andrew’s father fled to the Philippines in 1988 because he was about to be arrested for “misappropriating” $106,000 from his stock-brokerage business. (San Diego police say they have no record of a charge against him.) Though for the next six years Modesto sent MaryAnn his $900-a-month Navy pension, she says he stopped in late 1995. Forced onto welfare and food stamps, she moved to Eureka, Ill., to be near another son, Christopher, and to settle in public housing. About a month ago, Cunanan’s mother returned quietly to National City, Calif., a working-class suburb of San Diego.

When his father took off, Cunanan dropped out of college and joined him briefly in the Philippines. In her court papers, his mother says he came back because he could not stand his father’s living conditions. In the Philippine town of Plaridel, where Modesto lives now, he was questioned last week by Philippine police, who wanted to know if his son had tried to contact him lately. They say he insisted that his boy was not Versace’s killer. “My son is not like that,” the elder Cunanan told them. “He had a Catholic upbringing. He was an altar boy.”

Back in California, Cunanan bounced up to San Francisco in the early ’90s, where he lived off older men whenever he could. Though his mother has described him to reporters as “a high-class male prostitute,” none of his friends thinks he rented by the hour. His wealthy lovers gave him the money for his expensive clothes and the $1,000 restaurant tabs he would pick up for groups of friends. Cunanan was presentable, sufficiently well informed about politics and the arts to make conversation, and given to conservative, preppy clothes, or sweatshirts and a baseball cap. Versace’s glam merchandise was not his style. All the same, nobody describes him as reserved. Jesse Cappachione, manager of the Midnight Sun, a bar in the gay Castro district, says that from 1990 to 1992 a well-dressed Cunanan turned up almost every night to buy drinks for everybody. “He was boisterous and always seemed to be smiley,” says Cappachione. “His laugh was very distracting. You could hear it in almost every corner of the room.”

After returning to San Diego, Cunanan reportedly took up with Norman Blachford, a semiretired businessman in his late 60s with an ample, Venetian-style home on the ocean in La Jolla. He is said to have given Cunanan a dark green Infiniti and a monthly allowance as high as $2,500, and to have taken him to Paris. “Andrew always had an air about him,” says waiter Jim Allen, who knew Cunanan in San Diego. “‘Out of my way–I’m really busy right now. I’m wearing very expensive clothes.’ He had one of those large, checkbook-size wallets. He’d open it, and you’d see rows of platinum credit cards. They were all in his name.”

What he did not seem to have was much success with men closer to his own age. He complained that he couldn’t get dates. Still, Monique Salvetti, 31, a close friend of Madson’s, says Cunanan did meet Madson last year during one of Cunanan’s stints in San Francisco, when Madson was there on business. “But there wasn’t very much continuity in their relationship,” she says. To complicate things, at some point Madson was introduced to Trail, perhaps by Cunanan. A 1991 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Trail had been stationed in San Diego. When he got out of the Navy he was briefly a trainee in the California highway patrol.

By November, when Trail moved to Minnesota, Madson had lost interest in Cunanan. “He suggested there was something about how Andrew sustained this lavish life-style,” recalls Salvetti, “that he might be involved in something illegal.” Cunanan’s relationship with the older Blachford also eventually fell apart, adding to Cunanan’s devastation. By spring, friends say, he was taking the pain killers he sometimes sold to make money, adding vodka to his usual straight cranberry juice and sleeping late into the afternoon.

To get a one-way ticket for his April 25 flight to Minneapolis, Cunanan had to beg his credit-card company to allow one more purchase on his card, which was over the $20,000 limit, friends say. That weekend he stayed first with Madson at his apartment in a trendy warehouse district. Around 9:30 on Sunday night, neighbors heard shouts and thudding noises coming from the apartment, then the sound of running water. When Trail’s body was found, investigators saw that his watch had stopped at 9:50 p.m.

The murder scene was an investigator’s dream. The claw hammer that bludgeoned Trail to death was there. So was a gym bag with Cunanan’s name on it that contained an empty holster and a partly filled box of Golden Saber .40-cal. bullets. At Trail’s apartment police found a message from Cunanan on the answering machine, asking Trail to come to Madson’s place. Police who later searched Cunanan’s San Diego apartment found a trove of S&M gear: clamps, harnesses and videos featuring sex with animals.

There is considerable controversy about whether the FBI neglected or fumbled the search from there. People in the gay community ask whether the bureau cared enough about a serial killer who preyed mostly on homosexuals. The bureau says it saw to it that Cunanan was featured four times on America’s Most Wanted, and followed up thousands of leads. “We’ve reached out to every gay community in the nation that we can identify,” says Kevin Rickett, an FBI agent with the Minnesota Fugitive Task Force, which launched the manhunt.

In Florida, however, there have been complaints that the FBI did not focus early enough on Miami Beach’s gay community. A number of bars and businesses in the area say they were alerted by agents. But though the FBI promised to send 1,500 flyers to the gay and lesbian center in Fort Lauderdale, they did not arrive until the day after Versace’s killing. FBI officials blame government printing delays for the foul-up.

No one disputes now, though, that the search is on full force. FBI deputy director William Esposito told TIME, “I’d equate this manhunt to what we were doing in the late stages of the search for the Unabomber.” Agents are seeking out every known friend or associate of Cunanan’s, on the assumption he will try to contact one of them in an effort to get shelter and money. “There’s a high likelihood he’ll strike again,” warns Bill Hagmaier, chief of the FBI’s child-abuse and serial-killer unit. Meanwhile, after a private service in Miami on Wednesday attended by Versace’s brother and sister, the designer’s remains were cremated. Then his family took the ashes back to Italy on a private jet. And the worlds of Gianni Versace and Andrew Cunanan separated forever.

–Reported by Greg Aunapu, Cathy Booth and Tammerlin Drummond/Miami Beach, Julie Grace/Chicago, James Willwerth/San Diego, Laird Harrison/San Francisco and Elaine Shannon/Washington

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