Crime

Versace’s killer vanished. And the manhunt was on

Gianni Versace's murder shocked South Florida and the world

The murder of the Italian fashion icon Gianni Versace outside his Miami Beach mansion in 1997 triggered a nine-day manhunt that riveted South Florida and the world.
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The murder of the Italian fashion icon Gianni Versace outside his Miami Beach mansion in 1997 triggered a nine-day manhunt that riveted South Florida and the world.

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 manhunt, from the Miami Herald archives, was published July 24, 1997.

He could be in another city, another country or hiding down your block. Andrew Cunanan could be anywhere.

The only thing authorities know for sure is that a suspected serial killer lived quietly in Miami Beach and frolicked loudly on South Florida's gay scene for two months and now seems to have simply vanished, despite massive media exposure and a manhunt that ranks among the largest in state history.

To the public, the fact that an infamous sociopath could pass undetected for so long is unsettling. To experts, it isn't surprising — particularly with South Florida's shifting population of tourists and transients.

“Miami's a good town for this,” said Brian McGuinness, a veteran Miami private investigator. “I don't think it's a huge trick to blend into the landscape.”

In fact, South Florida is such a great place to turn ghost that Kenn Abaygo, author of Advanced Fugitive: Running, Hiding, Surviving and Thriving Forever lists it as a top destination for the desperate.

“It's excellent. As a matter of fact, in Advanced Fugitive, I recommend Fort Lauderdale. All of South Florida is excellent for urban evasion,” said Abaygo, a Plantation resident published by the niche house, Paladin Press, known for controversial guides like Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors.

A week after the brazen slaying of designer Gianni Versace, authorities continue to publicly profess the belief Cunanan remains in South Florida. But that amounts mainly to a presumption police and federal agents must go on until solid leads point them elsewhere.

Some investigators on the case believe he fled immediately. Mike Marquez, a Miami police detective who has spent the past week fielding phone tips, says, “If he's any kind of smart, he's out of here. There are 400 agents out looking for him. He's in the kitchen and there's a lot of heat.”

But even with the heat, experts outside the case agree, it's not unusual that Cunanan could hide in plain sight with relative ease — either here or on the run. He has a lot going for him, from where he lived to his lifestyle to his looks.

The neighborhood around the Normandy Plaza Hotel, where Cunanan paid cash for his $36-a-night room, is packed with similar hotels and condos, clean but cheap. With a revolving supply of working-class residents and tourists, Cunanan's behavior — in all day, out all night —didn't raise an eyebrow.

He depended on the same social dynamics that make South Florida a magnet for fleeing crooks and scammers, says McGuinness, the private detective. “It's not like small-town America where people talk about the new stranger.”

Before the Versace killing, Cunanan, despite national publicity and status on the FBI's most wanted list, openly mingled in gay clubs from South Beach to Fort Lauderdale — apparently without a single patron recognizing him.

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Suspected serial killer Andrew Phillip Cunanan. AP File AP

George Mangrum, Miami bureau chief for the gay-oriented magazine Scoop, finds that understandable as well. With South Beach an international tourist destination for gays, there are so many new faces that its hard to be recognized -- even for those who work hard at it.

“It's a very different attitude here. It's friendly but it's blasé about other people's lives. It's a very self-centered town,” Mangrum said. “It's the same reason Gianni Versace felt like he was able to go unnoticed.”

Experts agree another factor working for Cunanan is his appearance. With a pleasant but bland face, Latin-like coloring and medium height and build, he resembles the definition of average South Florida male.

That makes disguise a relatively easy matter. Miami Beach police, who found women's underwear and hair clippers among Cunanan's possessions, issued a caution that he could be dressed as a woman. But even a baseball cap and glasses would serve him well.

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The Miami Herald’s front page on July 17, 1997. - Miami Herald Archives

“He doesn't have any outstanding physical characteristics,” said Humberto Rapado, a special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and acting chief of the violent crimes squad, which hunts dangerous criminals.

Human nature also works in Cunanan's favor, Rapado said. Despite the widespread publicity and the thousands of tips pouring in, most people simply don't believe they'd be the ones to spot a killer.

Whether he's in South Florida or elsewhere, he likely is lying low now, says Peter Smerick, a retired FBI agent who specialized in criminal profiling. “He's probably watching every program that comes on and reading every newspaper that's available.”

He could be alone or have enlisted help — from a friend or lover here or elsewhere or by threat. His potential hiding places range from houses to houseboats. He could have fled on anything from bike to bus to stolen boat, even a rusty freighter to Haiti. Bogus IDs are a breeze to acquire and with a credit card, it's also simple to drive from Miami to say, New Hampshire, without ever even showing your face to a gas clerk —just slide a credit card into the pump.

On the wilder side, author Abaygo said, Cunanan could even blend into with the homeless, a technique he advocates in his book. “It's remarkably easy to do,” said Abaygo, who says he is a former government operative trained in evasion tactics. "When was the last time someone checked into a homeless shelter and was asked for identification?”

Abaygo also likes South Florida for other options, including the Everglades, but he doubts that move for Cunanan. “He's very much an urbanite. He'd be uncomfortable heading out of Miami into the Everglades.”

The likelihood, experts say, is that some serious mistake by Cunanan or tip from the public will eventually nail him. The notion that agents can predict the actions of deranged killers like chess masters plot opponent's moves is a "Hollywood type of situation,” says Smerick. “Unfortunately, real life doesn't work that way.”

In real life, killers sometimes escape. Take Juan Fleitas, one of six killers who tunneled out of Glades Correctional Institution in January 1995. Fleitas slipped through a statewide dragnet.

“There are people who have been gone for a number of years,” Rapado says. “Then, there are people we've never heard from again.”

MURDER PATH

April 25: Andrew Cunanan leaves San Diego, telling friends he needs to "take care of business" in Minneapolis.

April 29: Police find Jeffrey Trail, a friend of Cunanan, beaten to death with a claw hammer. His body is in the apartment of architect David Madson, another friend of Cunanan.

May 3: Madson is found shot to death near the shore of a lake, north of Minneapolis. His red Jeep Cherokee is missing.

May 4: The body of wealthy Chicago real estate magnate Lee Miglin is found in his garage. His throat was cut with a gardening saw. Madson's Jeep is found nearby; Miglin's green Lexus is missing.

May 9: William Reese, a cemetery caretaker, is found shot to death in Pennsville, N.J. His red Chevrolet pick-up truck is missing, and Miglin's Lexus is found at the cemetery.

May 10: A license plate is stolen from the Watts family of Florence, S.C. The plate is later discovered on Reese's red pick-up truck, parked in Miami Beach.

May 12: A man using one of Cunanan's aliases checks into the Normandy Plaza Hotel, 6979 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. He uses a passport as identification.

June 10: A time-stamped ticket later found on Reese's truck indicates it was parked in a garage at 13th Street and Collins Avenue in Miami Beach on this date.

July 7: Andrew Cunanan pawns a gold coin at Cash on the Beach pawn shop, 243 71st St., Miami Beach. He signs his own name, gives a thumbprint, and uses his own passport as identification. Police believe the coin was stolen from Lee Miglin.

July 15: Gianni Versace is killed in Miami Beach. The only suspect: Andrew Cunanan.

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