On a beautiful South Beach morning on July 15, 1997, world famous fashion designer Gianni Versace left his opulent mansion and walked to a nearby cafe.
When he returned, a serial killer was waiting.
Photo by Miami Herald
Gianni Versace’s murder was the biggest case in Miami Beach history. I was off when I got the call to come in and help with the investigation and manhunt. On my way in, I couldn’t help but think this had to be a Mafia hit. Nobody got shot on Ocean Drive on a Tuesday morning, we barely had any crime there. Soon I found out it wasn’t a Mafia hit and when I was told who his killer was, I couldn’t help but think this murder could have been prevented.
I first heard of the killer a couple of weeks before Versace was murdered. I was briefly assigned to a Federal Agency helping them search for subjects who had active arrest warrants.
An Agent approached me and asked for some help. He was searching for a fugitive who had killed 4 people across the country. He briefed me on the killings, and told me the killer’s name was Andrew Cunanan.
Andrew Cunanan, 28, was born in San Diego He was good looking and intelligent, with an IQ of 147. Cunanan moved to the Castro district in San Francisco where he worked as a part time gay gigolo. He liked to hustle older, wealthy gay men for money so he could live a lavish lifestyle. Cunanan sought fame and bragged about his exploits. Those who really knew him, though, saw a pathological liar with a violent streak.
THE SERIAL KILLER
Andrew Cunanan began to unravel in late Apr 1997 when he flew to Minneapolis, MN to visit his ex boyfriend David Madson and friend Jeff Trail.
On April 29th, just a few days after Cunanan arrived, he and David Madson beat Jeff Trail to death with a hammer. He had to be identified by his ankle tattoo.
Cunanan and Madson had disappeared. Four days later, on May 3rd, David Madson’s body was found by Rush Lake near Rush City, Minnesota. Cunanan shot Madson with a .40 cal handgun in the eye, head, & back.
The following day, on May 4th, 71 year old Lee Miglin’s body was discovered in the garage of his home in Chicago. Andrew Cunanan tortured Miglin and cut his throat. Cunanan stole thousands in cash, clothing and rare coins, then drove away in Miglin’s dark-green Lexus.
Cunanan hid out in New York until May 8th when he drove to the Philadelphia area. Cunanan and the stolen Lexus description were broadcast on the radio.
The next day, Andrew Cunanan exited the highway in Pennsville, New Jersey and drove to a nearby Civil War cemetary. He entered the caretaker’s building and located the caretaker, William Reese, and shot him in the head. Cunanan killed Reese for his bright-red 1995 Chevy pick up truck.
Andrew Cunanan had killed 4 people in 11 days.
CUNANAN IN SOUTH FLORIDA
After the Agent briefed me about the murders I knew Cunanan was a serial killer and would kill again. The Agent told me his information was that Cunanan was hiding out in Fort Lauderdale, part of a secret gay organization that involved matching gay, rich men with younger gay Gigolos. The Agent needed to find information about the organization, then he could capture Cunanan.
He asked that I introduce him to Miami Beach Police Officers who were active in the Gay community.
We drove to Miami Beach and met with a gay female officer. She was active in the community, but had not heard of the organization Cunanan was supposed to be part of. She called others in the community, but they hadn’t either.
The Officer asked for a Cunanan wanted flier so she could reach out to gay establishments on Miami Beach. She told the Agent “if Cunanan is gay in Fort Lauderdale, he will eventually make his way to Miami Beach”.
The Officer felt it was important for those establishments to know that a murder subject may be in their midst.
The Agent declined her request because he was concerned the information may get back to Cunanan. He also assured her his information was that Cunanan was in Fort Lauderdale.
I also introduced the Agent to a Homicide Sergeant. He also asked for a wanted flier, but the Agent didn’t want us to distribute the flier, or our assistance in searching for Cunanan. He was only at the Police station seeking information about the secret gay organization. He was confident Cunanan was in Fort Lauderdale.
As an Investigator, the decision to share information about a wanted subject is not an easy one. If you share, one mistake from an overzealous cop can alert the bad guy, allowing him to flee. If you decide not to share, you better hope your information is correct. If it’s not, nobody else is looking for the bad guy. It makes it easy for him to avoid capture. In this case, the fugitive avoiding capture was killer. It turns out Cunanan wasn’t in Fort Lauderdale, but we didn’t know that until after Versace murder.
On May 12, three days after killing New Jersey caretaker William Reese, Andrew Cunanan checked into the Miami Beach Normandy Plaza Hotel under an assumed name. He stayed there for the next 2 months.
During that time, witnesses said Cunanan left the hotel often. He frequented several gay bars on Miami Beach, including club Twist, which was directly across the street from the Miami Beach Police Dept.
On July 7, a week before Gianni Versace’s murder, Andrew Cunanan walked into the “Cash on the Beach” Pawnshop and pawned a rare coin he stole when he killed his victim in Chicago. Cunanan presented his passport as identification, used the Normandy Plaza Hotel as his residential address, and provided a fingerprint. Complying with state law, the Pawn Shop sent a copy of Cunanan’s pawn receipt to Miami Beach Police Department. It arrived within 48 hours, 6 days before Cunanan killed Versace. The receipt went unnoticed.
After Versace’s murder, this was a major focus of the media. Why didn’t Miami Beach make the connection between Andrew Cunanan and the pawn receipt? if so, he could have been captured before he had the chance to kill Gianni Versace. What the media didn’t know was our Pawn Shop Detective had no idea who Andrew Cunanan was. Cunanan was on the FBI 10 most wanted list, but unless we had information a subject was on Miami Beach or nearby, we didn’t actively search for him. We received many fliers for wanted subjects from all over the country. We only looked for those hiding out in South Florida. There were no fliers or information shared that indicated Cunanan may be in South Florida. If the Detective had that information, he likely would have made the connection.
THE VERSACE MURDER
On Thursday, July 10th, Gianni Versace arrived in town. He was accompanied by his partner, Antonio D’Amico. Two days later Andrew Cunanan left the Normandy Plaza Hotel without paying. On Tuesday morning, July 15th, Versace decided to run an errand usually left for his assistant. Just after 8:20 AM Versace left his Ocean Drive villa and walked 3 blocks to a nearby cafe. A short time later he walked back home. As Versace unlocked the gates to his residence, Andrew Cunanan approached from behind. At 8:45 AM Cunanan raised the .40 caliber handgun and fired twice, striking Versace in the face and head. Versace was rushed to the hospital but soon died. He was 50 years old.
That morning Ocean drive was busy with tourists, so there were plenty of witnesses. Calls to 9-1-1 came in immediately and every cop on South Beach converged on the area. After he shot Versace, Andrew Cunanan casually walked down the street, then ran north through an alley toward the 13 st. parking garage.
Cunanan may have been captured immediately after the shooting, but a subject totally unrelated to the shooting saw police rushing to the scene. He thought they were coming after him so he began to run. Officers were alerted to him and mistakenly chased that subject instead of Cunanan. Turns out he ran because he was in possession of narcotics. His actions allowed Cunanan to escape.
Cunanan made it to the parking garage and the pick-up truck he stole in New Jersey. He only had time to change clothes & flee the garage on foot, then disappeared onto the streets of South Beach.
WHO KILLED VERSACE?
The Miami Beach dayshift Homicide Detectives were veterans who had been investigating homicides for many years. They were amongst the best, so determining Cunanan was the killer didn’t take them long. Cunanan had already been identified as the killer of David Madsen, Lee Miglin and William Reese. When Cunanan fled to William Reese’s stolen pick-up after he shot Versace and his passport was inside, it made it easy to identify Cunanan as Versace’s murderer. Balistics also verified that Cunanan shot Versace with the same .40 cal handgun he used to kill David Madsen and William Reese. After the crime scene had been processed and Cunanan identified, it had to be determine if any other subjects assisted, and what his motive was. Many interviews were conducted and backrounds of Cunanan and Versace were investigated. It was determined Cunanan acted alone, but the motive was never determined.
THE CUNANAN MANHUNT
Ernest Hemingway said “There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.” He was right, There’s nothing like a manhunt. It was my favorite part of the job. It’s a challenge like no other, especially when trying to catch an intelligent fugitive who had just killed 5 people. When the stakes are higher, the rush is greater.
This manhunt was like something out of the movies. It included more than 100 cops from local, state, & federal agencies . Versace was world famous so we were being watched by the entire world.
The media attention was overwhelming. It’s the first time I realized that the media can have direct impact on an investigation and manhunt. One misstep and they’d be all over us. There were hundreds of tips coming in. Sightings of Cunanan were as far away as San Diego and Paris. There was a reward, so anyone who thought someone was looked similar to Cunanan called in a “tip”. Unfortunately too many man hours were spent chasing useless tips, but we had to investigate every one of them, just in case it led to Cunanan. We knew Cunanan was near, but the tips made it difficult to search the way we knew how.
It’s very difficult for a fugitive to avoid capture long term. He has to have money or a way to get it. If not, he has to have someone who can help him flee and hide out. Without these, Cunanan couldn’t go far.
The reality was Cunanan was likely hiding is some hole not far from the murder scene.
One tip that came in, in retrospect, was a very good one. It’s where I believe Cunanan was hiding for most of his 8 days after he killed Versace. The tipster owned a sailboat docked about 40 blocks from the murder scene. As he walked to check on the boat, he observed a man sitting on a bench nearby reading a magazine. When the tipster arrived at his sailboat, he noticed that someone had broken into the cabin. He looked around and saw items had been stolen, including his magazine. That’s when the tipster realized the man on the bench was reading the magzine stolen from the sailboat, and that man was Andrew Cunanan. When the tipster looked for him he had disappeared. It was very likely Andrew Cunanan. What a better place to hide when the entire world was looking for you then the cabin of a sailboat? He was located a few days later less than a block away.
On July 23rd a Houseboat caretaker was checking on a houseboat docked 41 blocks from the Versace murder location. As he walked inside, the caretaker heard a gunshot from the second floor. He fled and called Police. Hours later the manhunt for Andrew Cunanan came to an end when he was discovered dead inside the houseboat’s upstairs bedroom. He was found dead with a self inflicted gunshot wound. He had used the same .40 caliber handgun he used to kill Versace.
In 8 days Cunanan had travelled less than 3 miles.
There are a lot of theories for Cunanan’s motive for killing Versace, and I have my own.
I think Cunanan’s motive was fame. He had been on the run since Apr 28, killing 4 people across the country. Each day he had less money, and the noose for his capture was getting tighter and tighter. Cunanan’s time was running out. As he walked around sand visited gay establishments, he likely heard Versace had arrived in town. Finding out where he lived was easy because everyone knew. His villa was the only mansion on Ocean Drive, in the heart of South Beach.
I believe he waited until Versace left his villa, then he shot him. Andrew Cunanan always had a desire to be famous, and now he finally found a way.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Versace’s death. I think of this case often, and wish things had been done differently before his murder. It frustrates the Hell out of me me to think that Andrew Cunanan was right under our noses for two months but we didn’t know it. Before he killed Versace, Cunanan was careless and made several mistakes that gets fugitives caught. Miami Beach PD was one of the best departments in the country, and we caught fugitives all the time. We would have checked the hotel for Cunanan, located his stolen truck, or someone would have seen him walking down the street.
I strongly believe if the information about Cunanan had been shared with my department and we had participated in his search, Gianni Versace would be alive today.
Photo by Famous Fashion Designers