Crime History: Versace-Killer Andrew Cunanan’s 1997 Murder Spree

Andrew Cunanan [FBI]

MINNEAPOLIS, MN — On April 27, 1997, 27-year-old Andrew Cunanan bludgeoned his “old friend” Jeffrey Trail to death with a claw hammer in the apartment of a mutual pal, Minneapolis architect David Madson.

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Two days later, Cunanan fatally blasted a bullet through Madson’s skull. And, with that, a murder spree kicked off that would ultimately stump the FBI and terrify and mesmerize the entire planet.

Before it ended, Cunanan would kill five victims total — including world-renowned fashion designer Gianni Versace — and ultimately blow his own head off onboard a houseboat with the entire world tuned in from afar.

Andrew Phillip Cunanan was born in California to a Filipino-American father and Italian-American mother. They raised their boy strictly Catholic in a conservative area of San Diego, two factors that presumably stirred conflict within young, ardently homosexual Andrew.

To learn more about the case, watch the “The Body in the Rug” episode of Investigation Discovery’s Six Degrees of Murder on ID GO.

After dropping out of college, Cunanan spent the 1990s cruising chic gay bars, peddling pleasure to high rollers who maintained him as a “kept man,” and eagerly getting mixed up in drugs and two-bit criminal activity.

Andrew Cunana Wanted poster [FBI]

Andrew Cunanan Wanted poster [FBI]

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Cunanan made the 1997 trip to Minnesota after telling friends he was relocating to San Francisco. The exact reasons as to why he murdered Trail and Madson remain a mystery, as do his motives for the next three killings.

From Minnesota, Cunanan drove Madson’s Jeep to Chicago. Once there, he captured 72-year-old real estate mogul Lee Miglin, bound him with duct tape, and stabbed him 20 times with gardening shears and a screwdriver before finally slicing through the millionaire’s neck with a hacksaw.

After that, Cunanan swiped Miglin’s Lexus and hit the road for New Jersey, where he shot William Reese, a 45-year-old Civil War–cemetery caretaker.

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The FBI placed Cunanan on its famous Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List and searched frantically for him over the next two months. Remarkably, Cunanan “hid in plain sight” among Miami’s bustling gay scene.

With startling effectiveness, Cunanan frequently changed his appearance. One witness speculated that he had several wigs. The FBI even issued a Wanted posted featuring variations on the fugitive’s different “looks.”

At one point, though, either out of desperation or cockiness, he pawned some items for cash using his real name. As a result, law-enforcement agencies knew generally where Cunanan was as he continued to elude them. They just couldn’t catch him.

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On July 15, Cunanan shocked the entire planet when he brazenly walked up to Gianni Versace, then 50, and shot the beloved international fashion icon dead outside the designer’s own home. It happened in broad daylight, as Versace returned from a morning walk. A witness gave chase, but Cunanan escaped.

As the public reeled in shock, investigators found Reese’s truck in a nearby parking garage, containing Cunanan’s clothes and newspaper clippings about his other murders. Authorities tightened the dragnet around Miami.

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Eight days later, the caretaker of a locally docked houseboat reported an intruder. Officers deduced it was Cunanan and prepared for a standoff and possibly even a gunfight.

As if knowing his time was up, Andrew Cunanan pointed the same semi-automatic pistol he’d used to kill his three shooting victims against his own temple and squeezed the trigger. Police, not knowing that their suspect lay dead inside, surrounded the boat for five hours before going onboard and discovering Cunanan’s body.

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Immediate speculation cropped up as to what Cunanan’s motives may have been. The most popular theory early on was that he had been diagnosed as HIV-positive, and the spree was some kind of “revenge run” against other gay men or former partners. An autopsy, however, proved that Cunanan did not carry the virus.

A 1997 New York Times article discussing what might have set Cunanan off brings up that he had recently lost his place as the “kept man” of an older millionaire he’d been living with for a year. Cunanan had been forced to move into a modest apartment that he shared with a roommate. Tim Barthel, the owner of a gay bar Cunanan frequented, stated, ”He complained to friends that he was broke. He had gotten rid of his car. He was living in a dumpy apartment. All the pretenses were gone. He couldn’t be the top dog anymore. He couldn’t be the center of attention.” Barthel then added, “Well, I guess I shouldn’t say that, because he is now.”

Still, the most direct answer to the question of why Andrew Cunanan did what he did remains, simply, that no one knows. As such, more than just a serial killer died onboard that vessel on July 24, 1997. He took with him a tragic secret that can only keep the world guessing.

To learn more about the case, watch the “The Body in the Rug” episode of Investigation Discovery’s Six Degrees of Murder on ID GO.

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Read more:
FBI
New York Times
New York Times (2)
History
Washington Post
Biography
Murderpedia
Vanity Fair

Main photos: Andrew Cunanan [FBI]

  • Martha Bartha

    What a whack job!