The Murder of Gianni Versace Was a Crime a Particular Nightmare Is Made Of: Inside a Most Twisted Tale

On July 14, police confirmed to E! News that two males were found dead inside a hotel room at The Villa Casa Casuarina Hotel, nearly 24 years to the day that Gianni Versace was murdered there.

By Natalie Finn Jul 17, 2021 10:00 AMTags
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Three years after Ryan Murphy's American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace debuted, the Versace mansion is once again making headlines.

On July 14, Miami Beach police arrived at The Villa Casa Casuarina Hotel after receiving a call from housekeeping that they had discovered two deceased males, the news coming nearly 24 years to the day that Gianni Versace was murdered there. An incident report obtained by E! News revealed it was an apparent double suicide, with police noting both men suffered gunshot wounds to the head. 

Two decades earlier, at the same spot, Versace fell victim to one of the world's most nightmarish crime—made all the more terrifying because at the time it felt hopelessly random. Of course, the targeting of the Italian fashion designer wasn't random to his deranged killer, 27-year-old Andrew Cunanan, but for such a major celebrity to fall prey to a serial killer was unfathomable at the time.

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Though the list of people who've become posthumously famous because they were the victim of a grotesque crime is long, and will continue to grow, the list of people who were already famous when they were killed is relatively short. But those deaths are considered the most "shocking" because, despite how preposterous it sounds... isn't all that wealth and fame supposed to be able to shield a person from being murdered in her house, stabbed to death in a carport, fatally shot in a drive-by, or, like Versace, gunned down outside his fabulous home in Miami Beach, becoming Cunanan's fifth known victim in a three-month span in 1997? 

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In 1997, Gianni Versace was—and his surname remains—one of the most famous brands in the fashion universe.

With a clientele that included Princess Diana and a social circle that boasted MadonnaElton John and Naomi Campbell, he was a member of the celebrity world that he dressed (perhaps never so memorably as when Elizabeth Hurley donned his safety pin dress in 1994, a moment that has repeatedly landed atop lists of the best red carpet moments ever) and his jet-setting ways were a testament to his financial success and his love of life.

A boy who loved to play but not a playboy, the 50-year-old designer had been with his partner, Antonio D'Amico, for 15 years. They were fixtures on the international party circuit together.

Versace had just shown a collection in Paris days earlier when, on July 15, 1997, upon returning to his mansion on Ocean Drive after a morning walk to buy an Italian newspaper at his favorite café, he was shot to death outside his front gate.

D'Amico heard the shots and ran outside. "My heart just stopped to beat," he told Dateline in 2017, his first time speaking out about the murder. "So I ran out and then I saw Gianni laying down on the stairs in blood." 

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Witnesses would tell police they saw a man darting down the street and turning into an alley, after which the unidentified man—described as a white male in his 20s, who walked right up to Versace and shot him point blank in the head—was caught on hotel security footage. Police found clothing matching the description—gray T-shirt, black shorts, white hat—in a nearby garage.

Early speculation was that the execution-style killing could've been a professional hit, or otherwise mob-related.

Gianni's sister, Donatella Versace, and their brother Santo, who worked at Versace headquarters in Milan, immediately hopped on a private jet to Miami.

"When my brother was murdered, I had the eyes of the whole world on me and 99 percent of them thought I wasn't going to make it," Donatella, who took over as head of the family business and remains chief designer and vice president of the Versace Group, reminisced to The Guardian in 2017. "And maybe I thought the same, at first. My brother was the king, and my whole world had crashed around me."

"Gianni Versace, together with a handful of names, symbolizes the success of Italian fashion all over the world," Giorgio Armani said hours later in response to the news that his friend had been murdered. "My reaction is one of revolt against such an unnatural and violent death, and one of profound grief."

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"Just the other day, I bumped into Gianni in front of the Ritz in Paris," said designer Valentino. "He was laughing, enjoying life and the beautiful things that surrounded him and that were a part of him—an eclectic mix that created the Versace style that will not be easily forgotten. Today, the shock and tragedy of what has happened is overwhelming, and it is hard to believe that he is no longer among us."

Added Elton John, who said he had been looking forward to seeing his friend soon on holiday: "We were so very close that it's like a large part of my life has died with him. I'm in deep shock at the news—it really hasn't sunk in yet."


Eight days later, Andrew Philip Cunanan—a hustler, interloper and pathological liar who aspired to that life, who fancied himself worthy of Gianni Versace's world, whose obsessions subsequently turned deadly—died by suicide aboard a houseboat docked along the Intracoastal Waterway, less than 3 miles away from Versace's house. He shot himself with the same .40-caliber pistol used to kill the designer and two other men. He didn't leave a note.

Yet at first even ballistics didn't solve the case in the police's eyes, because their question was everyone else's: How in the world did Versace get sucked into this sick individual's crime spree?

"I don't know that we are ever going to know the answers," said Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Barreto on Larry King Live in the days after Cunanan turned up dead.

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Murphy successfully turned fresh eyes on the seemingly well-trod characters who made up the O.J. Simpson saga in 2016's The People v. O.J. Simpson, bringing new life to the details of that now 24-year-old case. So, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, starring Edgar Ramirez as the designer and Darren Criss as Cunanan, filled in the outlines of the murderer's character—as well as painted a detailed portrait of Versace's luxurious life—as much as possible.

Versace's family stated their objections to the series, charging that the show's primary source material, Maureen Orth's book Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in US History, should be "considered a work of fiction." Publisher Random House said in response that the book, when published in 1999, was a "carefully reported and extensively-sourced work of investigative journalism by an award-winning journalist with impeccable credentials."


But in 1997, especially in those first few days, even the most basic of questions—had Cunanan ever met Versace, what was his relationship to the owner of the houseboat where he was found dead, did he have HIV/AIDS (he didn't), why did he kill five people in three months, why did he kill Versace, did he kill Versace—abounded.

The youngest of four children and a native of National City, Calif., in true made-for-TV fashion Cunanan was handsome, well-groomed, witty, incredibly intelligent and cultivated, in the sense that he schooled himself in the finer things in life so that he would be ready to immerse himself in those finer things when his time came—and he hobnobbed just enough with the upper crust to make his stories of living the jet-set life believable. He certainly knew who Versace was but, though they're said to have crossed paths about seven years before the murders, there's no evidence that he ever particularly registered in the super-star designer's consciousness.

Basically, if Patricia Highsmith hadn't written the story in 1955, The Talented Mr. Ripley could've been inspired by Andrew Cunanan. But at the end of the day, he didn't look like someone you would see on the street, or even at your door, and be afraid of.

At some point in 1996, he moved out of the home of a wealthy La Jolla businessman, whom he sometimes accompanied to social events, where he'd been living for about a year. No one knew what prompted his change in address, though it didn't seem to have been Cunanan's idea. In April 1997, Cunanan told friends he was moving to San Francisco (where he had lived for awhile after dropping out of college) but was first flying to Minnesota to "settle some business."

No one would ever find out what, exactly, he meant by that.

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He arrived in Minneapolis on April 25, 1997. On April 27, he beat 28-year-old Jeffrey Trail to death with a hammer, rolled his body up in a rug and left him in a loft that belonged to Cunanan's ex-boyfriend David Madson, 33. Cunanan was at Madson's when he called up Trail, whom he knew from San Diego, to come over. Trail told his roommate he'd meet him at a bar at 9 p.m. after he saw Cunanan.

When Trail's body was found two days later, his watch had stopped at 9:55 p.m.

''When Jeff got a haircut, Andrew had to have the exact same haircut,'' Trail's sister Lisa—who along with the rest of her family denied that her brother had ever been romantically involved with Cunanan— told The New York Times that July. ''When Jeff went to San Francisco and got a certain style of baseball cap, Andrew had to go to San Francisco and get the very same cap. When Jeff grew a goatee, Andrew grew a goatee."


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Madson and Cunanan were reportedly last spotted ordering cheeseburgers and beer at a bar north of Minneapolis on May 2. A bartender who remembered the pair later told the Los Angeles Times that Madson seemed nervous; the following day, his body was found on the shore of East Rush Lake, about 60 miles north of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area. He had been shot three times.

''There is so much that is unclear in all of this,'' a Minneapolis Police Department spokeswoman later told the New York Times. ''The people we want to talk with are either dead or gone.''

Police were left in hindsight to ponder possible errors in judgment—including the decision to not enter Madson's apartment right after friends reported him missing when he didn't show up for work on Monday, April 28. They later theorized that Cunanan had been holding Madson hostage at gunpoint—even while out in public—before shooting him, so it was possible they could have found Madson, with Cunanan, alive. And when Trail's body was finally discovered on April 29, no one immediately looked at the luggage tag on a black bag left in plain view in the apartment.

(Madson, meanwhile, was initially considered a possible accomplice in Trail's death and, even after he himself was murdered, wouldn't be officially cleared until 1998.)

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On May 4, 1997, Cunanan stabbed 72-year-old real estate developer Lee Miglin more than 20 times with a screwdriver and almost severed his head with a hacksaw. His killer or killers unknown, two days later the Chicago Tribune reported on the apparent torture-murder of the prominent businessman, whose body was found by police in a detached garage next to his home in the wealthy and insular Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago. Miglin's head was wrapped in masking tape, with a small hole cut out for his nose, his feet were bound and his body was covered in plastic and brown paper.

Lee's wife, Marilyn Miglin, said that she thought it strange that her husband didn't show up at the airport to pick her up from a business trip, and when she went home she first saw a mess—stubble from an electric shaver in the bathroom sink, a partially eaten sandwich and dirty dishes in the kitchen, all very unlike Lee to leave lying around. 

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She called police after she found what turned out to be a fake 9-mm. pistol in the bathroom, and officers found her husband in the garage. There were no signs of forced entry to the house. Friends and associates interviewed by the Tribune had nothing but glowing things to say about the victim.

Though there was nothing, nor should there have been, anything in the initial Tribune report connecting what happened to Miglin to two bodies found days earlier in Minnesota, David Madson's red Jeep Cherokee would soon be found parked around the corner. By then Cunanan was long gone, but his traversal of state lines landed him on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List.

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Driving Miglin's black Lexus, Cunanan came across 45-year-old maintenance worker William Reese at Finn's Point National Cemetery in Pennsville Township, N.J., on May 9. He shot Reese to death, then took his red pickup truck and drove to Miami, where he proceeded to hide in so-called plain sight for two months. After Versace was killed, police found the truck, containing newspaper clippings about the previous murders and and Cunanan's passport, parked in a nearby garage. The abandoned clothes were right next to it.

"Down deep inside, the publicity is more sexual to him than anything else," Chicago police captain Tom Cronin, an expert in serial killers, told Orth, who reported on the manhunt for Vanity Fair before writing Vulgar Favors. "Right after one or two of these homicides, he probably goes to a gay bar in the afternoon when the news comes on and his face is on TV, and he's sitting there drinking a beer and loving it. You hide in plain view."

Having left quite the trail behind him, Cunanan—already a wanted man—became the primary suspect in Versace's death. There was a $45,000 reward being offered for information that helped lead to his capture.

"This guy knows we're after him," Lt. Dave Barsness, head of the Minneapolis Police Department Homicide Unit, told local CBS affiliate WCCO-TV in 1997 after Versace was killed and the manhunt for Cunanan was heating up. "I think the end result is either he's is going to commit suicide or he is going to end in a shootout with police."

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On July 23, 1997, Cunanan killed himself.

He was found on a houseboat belonging to German businessman Torsten Reineck, a fugitive from his native country, where he was wanted on fraud charges, but freely moving about in the U.S. Reineck was in Las Vegas and it was a caretaker, Fernando Carreira, who happened to stop by to check on the houseboat and, upon going inside (one of two locks was open, but he didn't see signs of forced entry), spotted slippers and a pillow and then heard what sounded to him like a gunshot. Scared, the man ran out and called police.

Authorities concluded that Cunanan happened upon the empty boat and, needing a place to hide out, had made himself at home.

A SWAT team closed in and they initially tossed a tear gas canister into the boat to smoke him out. They would eventually find him dead inside; he had pretty much blown his face off, so his identity needed to be confirmed through fingerprints. The whole process took about 12 hours from when the police first arrived.

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Maureen Orth wrote in Vanity Fair in September 1997 that she had spent two months gathering information on Cunanan, whose life and alleged crimes were ripe for the investigating anyway, before Versace was killed.

As authorities and reporters tried to make sense of Cunanan's cross-country killing spree, stories started to pour forth of the young man's charm and infectious personality, as well as his bizarre, erratic behavior. Raised Catholic, he was a former altar boy whose homosexuality shocked his devout parents but whose seeming comfort in his own skin won him many admirers. He was a allegedly party boy but he also supposedly enjoyed the company of rich, older men who took care of him, lavishing him with gifts and cash in exchange for companionship.

"He liked S&M," Erik Greenman, Cunanan's roommate in San Diego before he left for Minneapolis, told Orth. "He was more the tying-up-and-whips type—just the degradation, not the asphyxiation."

Yet no one guessed what Cunanan was capable of.

"Even the word killer, it's amazing," Todd McDonald, a friend from San Diego, told the Washington Post after Cunanan's suicide. "I can't imagine that someone I've hugged has killed all these people. It's a big awakening for all of us."

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Lee Miglin's family told Orth that neither he nor his 25-year-old son would have had anything to do with the killer. William Reese's murder, meanwhile, was deemed a functional homicide, the 45-year-old cemetery caretaker in the wrong place at the wrong time, when Cunanan just needed to switch vehicles.

Orth also reported hearing that Cunanan, who had a habit of namedropping Versace as an acquaintance, had briefly socialized with the designer in San Francisco in 1990. Versace had seen Cunanan at the nightclub Colossus and, presumably mistakenly (or he was just being nice), told the young man that he recognized him from Lake Como, Italy, where he had a house.

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According to Orth's Vanity Fair piece, while the FBI was hunting for him between May and July, Cunanan was living under a fake name in a $36-a-day residence hotel called the Normandy Plaza. It was by the beach, but otherwise nothing to write home about.

Witnesses from the local gay nightlife scene would remember seeing an immaculately dressed Cunanan out regularly, and he was also said to have worked occasionally as an escort. He checked out of the hotel three days before Versace's murder, after which he and the fabulously wealthy, successful and internationally famous fashion icon would be linked forever.

Just as Andrew Cunanan always envisioned.

(Originally published on Nov. 16, 2017, at 4 a.m. PT)

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