CUNANAN’S KILLING SPREE:FBI thought he was in West Palm Beach


Twenty years later and still no one can say what started the strange and deadly saga that riveted the country that summer.

Or what the murderer was apparently doing in West Palm Beach days before the final shocking killing.

On July 15, 1997, Andrew Cunanan, the 27-year-old playmate of wealthy men, ended a nationwide killing spree by gunning down Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace on the coquina-stone steps of his gilded Miami Beach pleasure palace.

It was Cunanan’s fifth murder in three months.

Ever since, the sensational killings have been the subject of horror and fascination. Cunanan killed friends, a former lover, strangers and the famous, with a hammer, garden saw and gun.

Twenty summers later, curious tourists still pause outside Versace’s opulent mansion, built in 1930, now a luxury hotel called The Villa Casa Casuarina.

Early next year, the homicides will be the subject of an FX “American Crime Story” starring Penelope Cruz, Edgar Ramirez and Ricky Martin. The cast and crew spent the month of May shooting in the villa.

In April, NBC probed Versace’s death on Dateline.

***

Cunanan’s cross-country death tour began in April 1997, when he left his San Diego home to visit two friends in Minneapolis, one a former lover. Within a week, both men were dead.

Moving east, he killed a real estate tycoon in Chicago, then drove the man’s Lexus to New York City. In a New Jersey cemetery in early May, he shot a caretaker for his red pickup truck.

He turned that truck south.

By June, Cunanan had washed up in South Florida, the target of a nationwide manhunt with his name on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List.

That July, Versace, 50, was enjoying a three-week vacation at the villa he had spent $33 million to $50 million renovating and furnishing in sumptuous Roman extravagance.

By the 1990s, Versace had become famous for injecting a sexy, rock ‘n’ roll edge to the staid world of couture fashion.

Remember actress Elizabeth Hurley’s revealing safety pin dress from a 1994 movie premiere? Versace.

Or, Jennifer Lopez’s infamous green gown with neckline cut somewhere south of her belly button? Also Versace.

Siren dresses, some called them. His personal symbol was a head of Medusa.

By the time of his death, he’d created a global fashion kingdom. Princess Diana wore Versace. So did Elton John and Madonna.

Versace told friends he felt safe in South Beach, where people left him alone and he didn’t need bodyguards.

On July 15, Versace was returning from his usual breakfast at the nearby News Cafe. As he unlocked his ornate wrought iron gate, Cunanan ran up and put a gun to his head, firing twice. The designer was struck in the face and neck.

“No, no, no!,” screamed the designer’s long-time boyfriend, Antonio D’Amico, hearing the shots and rushing outside.

According to a witness, Cunanan then walked away “like a duck.”

Almost immediately, police named Cunanan a suspect after finding the stolen red truck and his discarded clothes in a parking garage, kicking off a frenzied eight-day manhunt.

Later that day, the FBI said Cunanan had been spending time in Palm Beach County.

“We’ve been chasing him in West Palm Beach in the last couple of weeks,” said the FBI agent in charge of the bureau’s Miami office.

A West Palm Beach FBI office spokesman said agents had investigated reported sightings of Cunanan around the city, but none had panned out.

In Miami Beach, police delved into the South Beach club scene, hoping to ferret out Cunanan.

Slowly, tantalizing clues popped up. Police learned that Cunanan had pawned a gold coin stolen from one of his victims. They located the cheap hotel where he’d hidden before killing Versace. They knew he was running out of the money.

By July 23, Cunanan was cowering in a shuttered houseboat docked off the 5200 block of Collins Avenue. When a caretaker entered to inspect the boat about 4 p.m., someone fired a shot from deeper inside the boat.

Minutes after the caretaker’s 911 call, police swarmed around the dock. Local TV stations and networks interrupted regular programming to broadcast live, as viewers across the country watched the drama unfold.

After four hours, police threw a phone inside the boat, but got no return call.

By 8 p.m., they’d waited long enough. In a cloud of tear gas, SWAT team members stormed the houseboat.

But Cunanan was already dead, lying on the bed of the second-floor master bedroom.

He had shot himself in the face.

Despite lengthy investigations by police agencies in four states, Cunanan took his secret murder motives to the grave.

He left no note. He provided no explanation of why he picked a crown prince of the fashion world as his final victim.

Some speculated he was lashing out after being told he was HIV positive, but police have never confirmed his HIV status.

What is known is that he lived off the generosity of wealthy patrons and had recently lost his latest benefactor.

Although Cunanan had been often supported by wealthy, older men, D’Amico said the two had never crossed paths.

In May, CBS’ “48 Hours” looked into whether Versace and Cunanan knew each other.

Their conclusion? There’s no evidence they did.

When Cunanan’s death was announced, relief flooded through Miami Beach, the flamboyant beach town whose free-wheeling decadence at the time attracted celebrities including Madonna, Cher and Sylvester Stallone.

But with Versace’s murder, some of the beach’s gleam dimmed. Stallone sold his house, after expressing concern about security. Madonna left three years later.

Versace’s 19,000-square-foot mansion, with 10 bedrooms and a central courtyard, filled with sculpture, frescoes, stained glass and an sybaritic pool covered with thousands of mosaics, was sold in 2000 for $19 million. Since then, it’s sold several more times, most recently for $41.5 million in 2013 to the family behind Jordache jeans, who turned the building into a hotel.

Versace’s younger sister, Donatella, took over her brother’s fashion empire.

The heartbroken Versace family has reportedly never returned to the house.



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