Miami Beach

Versace, fashion superstar, was murdered in South Beach 20 years ago.

July marks the 20th anniversary of the murder of designer Gianni Versace in South Beach and the search for his killer, Andrew Cunanan. This report on the shooting death of Versace, from the Miami Herald archives, was published July 15, 1997.

Famed Italian designer Gianni Versace, who brought rock-'n'-roll flash to the staid world of high fashion, was assassinated Tuesday on the beachfront boulevard he helped transform into the American Riviera.

Without warning, Versace was shot twice in the back of the head on the steps of his lavish Ocean Drive palazzo by a man police say may be a serial killer on the FBI's 10 most-wanted list.

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The macabre ending to Versace's celebrated life shattered the peace of a summer morning in South Beach, where many had embraced the designer as one of their own.

It happened in broad daylight, just before 9 a.m., as Versace, 50, was concluding his morning ritual: a short stroll to the nearby News Cafe for coffee and magazines. He was unlocking the ornate wrought-iron gate to his mansion when a young man in shorts and a white cap came up behind, put a handgun to his head and fired.

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Police suspect the man is Andrew Cunanan, 27, who is charged in one murder in Minnesota and wanted in connection with three other slayings. They warn he is still at large and is considered armed and extremely dangerous.

The link to Versace's murder: a red Chevrolet 1500 pickup truck impounded by police near the scene of the shooting. Cunanan is believed to have stolen a red 1995 Chevrolet truck from his last alleged victim, a cemetery caretaker, in New Jersey in May.

Journalists from all over the world rapidly descended on Miami Beach. Local TV stations interrupted their programming to bring the news to South Florida. Hundreds of curiosity seekers gathered in Lummus Park, across Ocean Drive from Versace's beachfront house, to gawk at the blood staining his stone steps. When police removed the yellow crime-scene tape, people in the crowd began laying flowers and bouquets there.

Versace was head of a Milan-based global empire, a glamorous figure who in flamboyant style dressed —and befriended — stars and celebrities from Elton John to Madonna.

He helped cement South Beach's place in the fashion world when he turned a rundown apartment building on Ocean Drive into an elaborately decorated Italianate mansion , one of several homes he owned around the world.

Immediately after the 9 a.m. shooting, several witnesses followed the gunman as he left Versace bleeding face up, walked north on Ocean Drive, then turned west on 12th Street, said Miami Beach City Manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa.

The gunman ran north through an alley and entered the parking garage at 13th Street and Collins Avenue. At one point, realizing he was being followed, the man turned and pointed a handgun at one pursuer, who dropped to the sidewalk.

At the parking garage, witnesses say, the killer got into a red Chevrolet truck, changed clothes, then left on foot. Police found bloody clothing under the truck, which was parked on the third floor of the four-story garage.

The killer, described as a white man in his mid-20s, about five-feet eight-inches tall, has not been caught.

Police dusted the truck for fingerprints and showed witnesses a photo lineup Tuesday to see if they could pick out the gunman.

Cunanan — who is 27, white, 5-feet 10-inches and 160 to 180 pounds — has been the subject of intense media coverage and a national manhunt by the FBI, which posted a $10,000 reward for information leading to his capture.

His estranged mother described him to The Chicago Sun-Times as a "high-class homosexual prostitute." Cunanan is suspected in the bludgeoning death of a one-time friend and the shooting death of his former lover in Minneapolis, and the killing of a Chicago man.

Authorities said they were not yet positive that Cunanan was involved in the Versace shooting, but Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Barreto said investigators have evidence linking him to it.

Barreto said he had "no idea" whether Cunanan and Versace knew each other. But investigators were certain that the designer was not the victim of a random robbery or shooting.

"Somebody definitely wanted to kill Mr. Versace, " Miami Beach Mayor Seymour Gelber said.

Versace's shooting stunned South Beach residents accustomed to seeing the multimillionaire designer casually strolling Ocean Drive, usually in shorts and flip-flops. In spite of Miami's reputation for violent crime, he apparently never felt the need for bodyguards.

"He walked up and down Ocean Drive all the time, unpretentious and unsecured, " said Jack Donahue, publisher of Fashion Spectrum magazine. "He just wanted to be one of us. This is a big loss to the community. I'm in shock, as is the whole world."

Danny Bensoussan, owner of Hugo Concept International on Washington Avenue, said Versace was in town to see the new display window of his Washington Avenue store. There was a small, private reception there on Saturday. The designer was scheduled to leave town today for a fashion show in Milan.

When in town, Versace had an unvarying morning routine -- walking to the nearby News Cafe to pick up newspapers and magazines to read on the beach.

It was this innocent routine that Versace's killer may have anticipated.

"We see him every day, " said News Cafe hostess Stephanie Vanover. "He always minds his own business. It had to be someone who knew his routine."

On Tuesday, Versace was at News Cafe between 8:30 and 9 a.m., employees said. He had a cup of coffee at an outdoor table, then bought five magazines at the newsstand: Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, People, the New Yorker and American Vogue, for $15.07. He walked alone north on Ocean Drive back to his mansion.

Jaime Cardona, 32, a model and friend of Versace for the past seven years, said he had arranged to meet the designer at the beach across the street that morning

Shortly before 9 a.m., passersby on Ocean Drive heard two loud sounds.

"I was coming back from having a cup of coffee when I heard two loud shots go 'Bang! Bang!' " said Eddie Bianchi, owner of the Skate 2000 shop at 1200 Ocean Dr. "When I got to the steps, Versace was laying on the steps, his face looking up. His eyes were closed and blood was pouring everywhere. He shook a little bit, but then he went still."

Bianchi said an older woman at the scene screamed that she saw Versace's killer.

"I had never seen police arrive so fast, and when they were standing over Versace, this older woman was screaming: 'I saw him! I saw him!' Then she sat down and started saying 'I have to go, I have to get my daughter.' But the cops made her stay and then they took her away."

The killer was wearing jogging clothes, too: light gray shirt, black shorts, a knapsack and a white cap, police said.

As witnesses arrived, Antonio D'Amico, Versace's longtime companion, frantically ran back and forth between the house and the sidewalk. Wearing red shorts and a white T-shirt, D'Amico got into a car with police to look for the killer.

The medics put Versace inside the ambulance and worked on him there.

Versace was declared dead shortly after he was taken by paramedics to Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Outside the lobby of Jackson's Ryder Trauma Center, the neurosurgeon on duty described the condition Versace arrived in.

"Mr. Versace arrived at approximately 9:15 a.m. with two gunshot wounds to the back of the head, " said Dr. Philip Villanueva. "He was in arrest, basically his heart had stopped, and systemically brain dead. Shortly after arriving, our trauma team evaluated his vitals and went ahead with the declaration of death.

"There are very little words to describe this kind of thing, just very overwhelming and devastating types of wounds."

At Casa Casuarina, Versace's home, his black slippers lay on the front steps, along with the just-purchased magazines -- all put into individual brown paper bags by police as evidence.

Inevitably, there also was one ghoulish souvenir gatherer: A man used pictures of Versace fashions torn from a magazine to sop the blood left behind when firefighters washed off the steps with a hose.

On Tuesday evening, police searched an Ocean Drive hotel, the Crescent, but would not say what they were looking for. Police also combed the alleys behind Ocean Drive from 11th to 14th streets.

In South Beach, residents and Versace's friends prayed the killer would be found.

"He sounds like a freak from hell, " Cardona said. "Whoever did this, I hope he burns in hell. This one kid has destroyed what it took years to build. Gianni is going to be missed."

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