Crime

How the search for Versace’s killer came to a shocking end on a houseboat

What police saw when they entered the houseboat where Andrew Cunanan killed himself

Crime scene footage from inside of the houseboat where Gianni Versace's murderer Andrew Cunanan committed suicide on July 24, 1997.
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Crime scene footage from inside of the houseboat where Gianni Versace's murderer Andrew Cunanan committed suicide on July 24, 1997.

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 end of the manhunt on Indian Creek in Miami Beach, from the Miami Herald archives, was published July 24, 1997.

The biggest manhunt in recent history apparently is over.

The remains of a man believed to be Andrew Cunanan were found Wednesday night by police who stormed a houseboat after a four-hour siege, according to Miami Beach Mayor Seymour Gelber and other sources.

The most wanted person in America, the only suspect in the brazen killing of designer Gianni Versace and the slayings of four other men, Cunanan appeared to have died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Gelber said.

“Almost definitively, it's him,” Gelber said. “They have to do the tests, but we think it's him. I'm happy.”

Said a Miami Beach detective: “Believe me. It's him.”

Another high-ranking law enforcement source confirmed that police believed the body to be Cunanan's. The source said authorities were trying to reach Versace's family in Italy “so they could find out before the world does.”

Two other sources reported similar information.

Police refused to officially confirm that Cunanan was dead. But Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Barreto confirmed that a man's body had been found inside the houseboat.

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The houseboat in Miami Beach where accused killer Andrew Cunanan was found dead. C.W. GRIFFIN Miami Herald File

Asked during a late night news conference if the man resembled Cunanan, Barreto said:

“There is a similarity in the description of the victim that was found.”

The dramatic series of events began about 4 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, when police special forces — complete with helicopters, boats and dogs — descended en masse on the shuttered houseboat at 5250 Collins Ave., 41 blocks north of Versace's mansion.

During the siege, police fired eight rounds of tear gas or “flash-bang” grenades into the boat. They shouted “Come out! Come out!” Eventually, eight officers — huddled behind shields — stormed the boat.

At 8:03 p.m., before police entered the houseboat, some witnesses heard a muffled shot from inside. That might have been the precise moment that the man believed to be Cunanan took his life and ended a dragnet that galvanized the nation.

In the immediate aftermath of the assault and for nearly three more hours, police indicated that no one had been found inside the house.

“Negative on the initial search,”" one police officer told another in a radio transmission.

“It appears that no one is inside, “ said Miami Beach police spokesman Al Boza.

But authorities later changed their story, possibly as the result of subsequent searches.

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The Miami Herald front page on July 24, 1997. - Miami Herald Archives

No explanation was immediately available for the many hours of delay in announcing the end of the most comprehensive manhunt in recent U.S. history, though authorities' desire to notify Versace's family may have played a role.

As the siege unfolded, police sharpshooters took the high ground in surrounding condominiums and inched close to the houseboat. At one point, they tossed in what appeared to be a telephone trailing a wire. They screamed: “Pick up the phone! Talk to us!”

Neighbors cowered indoors, cloaked behind drawn curtains. Tourists and business people found themselves trapped behind police lines. Many South Floridians and others around the nation monitored the drama on television, magnetized by the possibility — the hope — that Cunanan was cornered, about to be caught.

Even as officers surrounded the houseboat, spokesmen said they could not be sure if Cunanan — or anyone, for that matter — was inside.

“The word here is caution,” Boza said. “We're going to be very careful. We're not going to make any errors.”

Police sped to the scene after a caretaker reported spotting an unauthorized stranger inside the boat. At first, he said the stranger fired a single shot at him. Later, the caretaker said he wasn't sure about the shot, but he was certain about the stranger.

He identified the assailant as a young man with dark hair, a very general description that could have applied to Cunanan.

Before long, Metro-Dade tactical specialists slipped close, seeking cover behind nearby bushes and behind a red Ford Explorer truck parked in the driveway. Helmeted, carrying rifles and shotguns, wearing bulletproof vests, their black T-shirts emblazed with the word SWAT, they held their position, surrounding the place, crawling ever closer.

FBI agents joined the vigil, some of them still dressed in white business shirts now shielded by protective vests. Platoons of Miami Beach officers also took position. A police boat stood sentry 100 feet away.

Traffic was blocked along a mile-long stretch of Collins Avenue, stranding thousands of people. Boats were prohibited from passing through Indian Creek. Everyone was warned to stay out of the line of fire.

“I am behind a car and have my vest on and I am a little scared for my life,”" one Miami Beach officer named Roberts told a crowd of bystanders. “These hedges are not going to protect you from a .40 caliber bullet.

“Please move back. I know you're curious and want to see, but this is the real thing. This is not a joke.”

Then, a haunting silence, an ominous stillness descended on the area.

“This is a crazy town,” said Dave Ziegelman of Orlando, visiting the area on business, now unable to leave the neighborhood. “The entertainment is free. I wonder how smart we are standing out here while everyone else has a bulletproof vest.”

The two story, two bedroom houseboat is owned by Torsten Reineck, according to public records. Records also showed that Reineck owns a Las Vegas club called the Apollo Health Club and Spa that caters to gays.

A friend, interior designer Ron Bourne, said the boat has been vacant since Christmas and Reineck has been out of the country. A worker at the Las Vegas club said Reineck has been in Germany. He also said that no one remembers Cunanan or Versace ever visiting the club.

Bourne said Reineck had been trying to sell the houseboat for some time. Asking price: $250,000.

The ground floor is dominated by a living room and a dining room, Bourne said. The upper floor contains the two bedrooms and a bathroom.

Silvana Liberte, a tourist from Argentina who is staying in the nearby Alexander condominium, said she has seen no activity in or near the houseboat during the past week.

“For the whole time we've been here, all these days, that house has had no lights,” she said. “It was dark and you saw nothing.”

But other local residents and workers said they recently reported several suspicious events in the area, events that no doubt contributed to officers' suspicions about the boat.

Tennis pro David Todini of the Carriage House Racket Club said he believes he saw Cunanan the day before Versace's murder, walking near the club at 5400 Collins.

Guillermo Vople, owner of a sailboat docked near the houseboat, said he discovered on the day after the Versace murder that someone had been sleeping in his boat.

He called police, who swept the place for fingerprints and removed some articles left behind. Volpe wouldn't say anything else, citing a request from police that he not discuss the case.

But Todini quoted Volpe as saying that he might have seen Cunanan last week sitting on a bench in a nearby park.

Cunanan, 27, was believed by police to be the man who slipped behind Versace last Tuesday morning, pumped two bullets into his head and then evaporated into the city. Versace, an artist renowned around the world, died on the front steps of his elegant villa on Ocean Drive.

Cunanan also has been charged or implicated in the deaths of two friends in Minneapolis, an elderly man in Chicago and a cemetery worker in New Jersey. In nearly every case, Cunanan stole his victims' vehicles, leaving them behind at the scene of his next alleged crime.

The cemetery worker's pickup truck was found last week in a garage just blocks from Versace's mansion. That truck provided many clues for detectives, including a receipt linking him to a gold coin hocked at a Miami Beach pawn shop.

A clerk at the shop, workers and residents of the nearby Normandy Isle hotel and many others in the neighborhood reported seeing Cunanan before the slaying of Versace. No confirmed sightings were reported since the death.

Cunanan has been on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List for months, but the manhunt attained critical mass in the past week. His picture has been published in virtually every newspaper in America, his image transmitted during nearly every televised news broadcast. More than 1,000 tips flooded into police hotlines.

Yet, Cunanan — believed to be short of cash but known to have the ability to camouflage and even change his appearance — continued to elude his pursuers. At one point, police said he could be masquerading as a woman.

Meanwhile, real or imagined sightings continued unabated, both near and far.

In recent days, police were alerted in Michigan, Maryland, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, North Carolina and South Dakota. None of those sightings were verified.

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