Gianni Versace’s murder shocked South Florida and the world
The slaying of Gianni Versace — on a postcard-perfect morning 20 years ago Saturday — was never a whodunnit. Within hours, police knew that a serial killer named Andrew Cunanan had pumped two bullets into the designer’s head at the entrance of his elegant seaside mansion, fatal wounds that stained the coral keystone front steps in red.
But the 24/7 search for the killer over nine days riveted and rattled South Florida more than any murder in the two decades since. It was a time before Twitter, but rumors and false sightings spread with social-media speed, particularly in gay dance clubs Cunanan was known to frequent.
He was here. He was there. He was everywhere.
It’s a crime that still resonates. “It epitomizes Miami Beach, for many people. It was the confluence of celebrity, a spree killer of dubious origin, some failings by the police. It has something for everyone,” said former Miami-Dade chief homicide prosecutor Michael Band, who worked on the case. “And Versace lives on — his brand did very well. People recognize the name.”
Nearly every day, tourists pose outside the Versace mansion, occasionally sprawled out on the steps in morbid reenactment. In recent months as the anniversary approached, there also have been a stream of recent news retrospectives, plus a murder TV drama in the works.
But even now, after investigators sifted through reams of records and countless interviews, there is an unresolved mystery at the dark heart of the crime: Why Versace? What drove Cunanan to murder an Italian designer who was South Beach’s brightest star — and what, if any, relationship they had — remains as baffling today as it did on July 23, 1997, when Cunanan ended his own drama by shooting himself in the head inside a houseboat moored off Collins Avenue.
No interrogation. No trial. Nothing left but theories.
“It was the case of a lifetime, but to this day, we don’t know why it happened,” said Paul Marcus, a retired Miami Beach detective who was one of the chief investigators. “I think Cunanan wanted to go out with a bang, and what better way to go out with a bang than killing an international figure. But we’re never going to know — never, ever.”
South Beach celebrity
Whether he acted on considered calculation or random impulse, Cunanan picked a perfect target - an international jet-setter who enjoyed walking the streets of his adopted home, relaxed and unguarded.
Hailing from an industrial Italian town, Gianni Versace grew up the son of a dressmaker and later went to work for his mother as a buyer. But by the 1990s, he had built an empire with extravagant style and risen to the lofty fashion fame that requires only one name. Versace.
That name became synonymous with bold, colorful and expensive garments, superstar models and rock ‘n’ roll panache.
That flashy style found a perfect home in South Beach in the early 1990s, when Versace purchased and restored the lavish Ocean Drive mansion known as Casa Casuarina. He soon became a fixture in the South Beach scene, helping transform Miami Beach from a seedy and aging seaside village to the sexy playground for models and celebrities.
“Miami’s cool. Miami’s a place where you can be yourself without running,” Versace once told interviewer Charlie Rose. “In Milano, you have to run every day.”
Such was his cultural weight that on the day of his death, Ocean Drive magazine — also instrumental in establishing South Beach’s hip image — did something it would never repeat.
“When he died, we put out a special edition in 24 hours,” said former publisher Jerry Powers. “We did it one time, and we put out 50,000 copies. And they were gone in a day.”
By that point, the world already knew the name of Versace’s killer.
Pursuing the lux life
Andrew Cunanan was a handsome, trim 27-year-old from Southern California who, by all accounts, happened to be a raging narcissist who felt the world owed him a luxurious lifestyle and doting lovers to bankroll it.
Raised in a comfortable middle-class family, Cunanan sought a more elevated lifestyle, basking in the opulence of his sugar daddies, spreading his money around with friends — at least until his paramours moved on.
Cunanan was incapable of love and fantasized about bondage and death during sex, one friend told police. Sarcastic and loud, Cunanan became “easily angered by the inattention of fickle friends,” a detective wrote in one report.
In April 1997, telling friends he “had to take care of business,” Cunanan left to Minnesota.
Over the next three months — for reasons still unclear — he would murder two acquaintances in Minneapolis, one beaten to death with a claw hammer. Then he killed a real-estate developer in Chicago, slicing his throat with a saw and stealing his vehicle. To evade a mounting FBI manhunt, Cunanan shot and killed a caretaker at a New Jersey cemetery to steal his red Chevrolet pickup truck.
Then, driving that distinctive red truck, he headed toward for South Florida.
Slipping the dragnet
The feds were ramping up the manhunt — but nothing of the scale soon to come.
So when Cunanan arrived in Miami Beach, a few opportunities were missed that might have alerted law enforcement that a spree killer had arrived in town.
By May 12, after stealing a license plate in South Carolina, Cunanan, using an alias, rented a room at the Normandy Plaza Hotel in North Beach, a dump of a place that rented for $36 a night. About a month later, Cunanan parked the stolen red Chevy truck with the stolen plate inside a municipal garage at 13th Street.
By the end of June, the FBI had begun passing out “wanted” fliers for Cunanan, focusing mostly on Fort Lauderdale under the belief that “he was a member of a secret gay organization with a membership of rich gay men.”
Miami Beach police said the FBI never explicitly warned that he might be headed to the city. “I want to keep this ‘low-key’ because I don’t want anyone to ‘tip’ him off,” an agent told a Miami Beach cop, according to one police memo.
Before the Versace murder, just one television station, WSVN-7, did a story warning that Cunanan’s possible destination could be South Florida. It was aired only after a reporter stumbled upon an FBI flyer. The FBI “led us to believe the fliers were fairly routine and not a major concern for the community,” the station’s news director said in 1997.
The Miami Herald ran only a wire story about his multi-state spree, which never noted the suspicion from federal agents that he might be headed to Florida. A subsequent blurb quoted a FBI agent as saying he might have slipped out of the country. Later, the FBI would come under criticism for its initial handling of the Cunanan hunt — but whether more publicity would have saved Versace is impossible to say.
Perhaps the best chance to nab Cunanan before he killed Versace came on July 7, eight days before the murder. Cunanan pawned one of the gold coins belonging to the Chicago murder victim. He gave his real name, thumb print and the hotel’s address. But back then, pawn slips were mailed to police, not computerized as they are today, and the slips piled up on the desks of a short-staffed police department.
Five days before Versace’s murder, a worker at the Miami Subs Grill near the hotel also called 911 to report that the fugitive was ordering a tuna sandwich. By the time cops got there, the man was gone.
The morning of July 15, 1997, as he did often, Versace walked down Ocean Drive to the News Cafe to buy Italian-language newspapers. As he walked back, someone with a dark backpack and baseball cap walked up briskly behind him as Versace retrieved his keys at the steps of the mansion. It was 8:45 a.m., warm and sunny.
“It was the moment he was reaching from his backpack, he pointed his gun with his arm very stretched out,” a key eyewitness told police. “Versace didn’t have time to even see or to turn around because it was a matter of a second. He placed his gun and he fired two shots, one after the other.”
Versace’s friend, Lazaro Quintana, was inside the home with Versace’s longtime companion, Antonio D’Amico, when the shots rang out. Quintana raced outside.
“You bastard,” Quintana yelled out, giving chase. Cunanan turned onto 12th Street and through an alleyway toward a parking garage and eventually slipping away. Police arrived in seconds, cordoning off the scene as the magnitude of what happened became clear.
Carlos Noriega, then a Miami Beach lieutenant over violent crime, was walking into headquarters as a detective he knew was leaving the building.
“He looked at me and said, ‘I’d hate to be you today.’ I remember those words like it was yesterday,” said Noriega, now the police chief in North Bay Village. “It wasn’t but minutes later that I realized Gianni Versace had been shot and killed on the steps of his house.”
Reporters and curious residents streamed to the scene within the hour. As Miami Beach police ramped up, the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement were summoned. Many officers and agents rushed to the scene on their own accord.
“Many people were just walking around aimlessly with no direction, asking, ‘What can I do,’ ” said retired Beach detective Marcus, who worked the case with lead detective Paul Scrimshaw, who has since passed away. “There were so many cops. Almost too many cops.”
The first break came immediately. Inside the municipal parking garage at 13th street, officers found a pile of clothes worn by the gunman next to the red Chevy pickup stolen from New Jersey. Within hours of the shooting, police knew Cunanan was the prime suspect.
The hunt was on.
Media from around the world descended on Miami Beach, a spectacle unlike anything the city had seen. TV news live trucks lined Ocean Drive and surrounded police headquarters around the clock. Case detectives suspected the trucks were trying to use mounted video cameras and microphones to snoop on their meetings in a third-floor conference room.
With Cunanan’s photo broadcast to the public constantly, the around-the-clock media spotlight likely helped keep Cunanan in hiding — and from fleeing from Miami Beach. But delays in releasing information frustrated reporters. Police quickly knew Cunanan was a suspect, for instance, but let critical early hours pass before officially naming him.
“Although Miami Beach was an international city, in terms of its law enforcement, it was still hick,” said then-Mayor Seymour Gelber, who often provided reporters with updates before police.
The rush for scoops also justifiably frustrated cops. Television reporters rifled through one of Cunanan’s rooms at the hotel before cops got there — witnesses told police that a TV producer gave a clerk $20 to allow them into the room.
On television and in print, journalists pumped out stories on every conceivable angle.
Mourners were snapping up Versace merchandise in record numbers. Cunanan might be dressed as a woman. The Miami Herald, the day before his capture, mused that Cunanan could have slipped into the homeless population, escaped to the Everglades, hopped aboard a “rusty freighter to Haiti” — or found refuge in a houseboat.
The media analyzed every detail of Cunanan’s life, even tracking down his father in the Philippines (he refused to acknowledge his son was gay or a killer). Former FBI profilers publicly debated whether Cunanan was a “spree” killer, or a “serial” killer.
False alarms sent police and reporters scrambling. Days after the murder, a man fitting Cunanan’s general description was seen walking away from the Miami Springs house where a naked man’s bloodied corpse was found. The murder was unrelated.
At one point, Miami-Dade police dryly added a disclaimer to a press release about another unrelated killing:”News Flash: Not every homicide in Dade County is committed by Cunanan.”
For investigators, the flood of tips from a jittery public offered maddening intrigue. “For that eight-day period, the leads were fast and furious,” Noriega said.
In Miami Beach, tipsters believed, Cunanan was spotted pondering the purchase of a hot dog in a convenience store, getting trip advice at a travel agency and even watching a news briefing outside the police station.
People in the Keys reported Cunanan ambling down Duval Street, dancing at a nightclub and driving in Key Largo. In Lake Worth, one bartender reported Cunanan drank a Heineken, even though the patron had blue eyes and a shaved head.
Across South Florida, anyone who vaguely resembled the swarthy killer came under suspicion — in heavily Hispanic Miami, that was pretty much everyone.
Then-college student Mario Alonso made brief eye contact with a Miami-Dade cop at a red light in West Miami-Dade. The officer pulled him over — at gunpoint. “He said, ‘I thought you were that Cunanan guy we’re all looking for,’ ” recalled Alonso, today a TV news photographer. “He said my cap made me look me suspicious.”
One bullet, zero explanation
In the end, Cunanan’s whereabouts were not discovered by police, but by houseboat caretaker Fernando Carreira. On the afternoon of July 23, he summoned police to report an intruder on the second floor of the houseboat — and a single gunshot.
Again, police and reporters dashed to crime scene. Heavily armed officers surrounded the houseboat, shooting in rounds of gas. More than five hours after Carreira stumbled onto Cunanan’s hiding spot, officers stormed the houseboat.
Lying on a bed upstairs was Cunanan, a pistol lying on his stomach, a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The news rocketed around the globe, but not without a glitch — a Miami Beach police spokesman mistakenly told reporters nothing had been found.
There was no doubt. A fingerprint examiner confirmed the body was Cunanan’s. The .40-caliber pistol was the one stolen from his first victim in Minnesota, used to execute Versace.
But Cunanan left no note, just unanswered questions.
What factors may have set off his spree remains a mystery — some media outlets speculated that he had he learned he was HIV positive, but that was disproved after his death.
During their probe, detectives learned that Versace sometime consorted with male prostitutes, but no one could say Cunanan was ever one of them. Police interviewed several sources who believed they saw the two together or interact in California years earlier, but those episodes were never corroborated.
Maybe Versace was gunned down in some sort of contract killing. But a dead bird found at the scene turned out not to be some mob warning, just a freak victim of a ricocheted bullet.
Maybe it was a botched robbery. Or maybe Cunanan shot and killed Verace as some sort of revenge, “for some real or imagined wrong,” detectives wrote in one report.
Maybe, some psychologists speculated, Cunanan was a pathological killer who simply wanted to be famous and taking the life of someone already famous would assure that.
Noriega, the former Miami Beach lieutenant, has his own hunch — one not based on evidence that anyone has turned up in the case but on motives that drive mundane, everyday murders.
“The more I’ve thought about it, I believe there was some connection between the two,” he said. “It was too well planned a homicide not to have been something personal.”