The terrifying real-life story behind the man who murdered Versace

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Harvey Day
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At 8.45 on the morning of July 15, 1997, Gianni Versace returned home to his Miami Beach mansion on Ocean Drive after a walk to a local café.

Without warning, a man walked up to him, pulled out a pistol and shot the superstar designer twice in the head. The assailant fled and disappeared into a nearby parking garage, where authorities found a red pickup truck which they eventually linked to an earlier murder in New Jersey.

It soon became clear that the killing was just the latest in a long line of violent murders by serial killer Andrew Phillip Cunanan.

Called The Assassination of Gianni Versace and based on the nonfiction book ‘Vulgar Favors’ by Vanity Fair author Maureen Orth, the BBC’s latest crime drama tells the story of the infamous murder of the world-renowned fashion designer in the summer of 1997.

The cast includes Edgar Ramírez as Gianni Versace, Penelope Cruz as his sister Donatella Versace, Darren Criss as serial killer Andrew Cunanan and Ricky Martin as Versace’s long-time partner Antonio D’Amico.

We know now that Cunanan, born in 1969 in California, went through a troubled childhood and suffered through turbulent teenage years after coming out as gay to his mother. He was said to be extremely intelligent – he spoke two languages – as well as being a prolific liar and manipulator, making outrageous claims about his supposedly glamorous and international family. 

The terrifying real-life story behind the man who murdered Versace

Police photos of killer Andrew Cunanan

He eventually left home and moved to the gay Castro district of San Francisco, where he quickly settled into a pattern of relying on older men for money and gifts – often in exchange for sex.

However, by the spring of 1997 and without any confirmed motive, Cunanan embarked on a murderous killing spree. First, he beat Jeffrey Trail – a former naval officer and acquaintance of Cunanan’s from his days in California – to death with a hammer in Minneapolis, leaving his body rolled up in a rug. Cunanan stayed in the apartment for days with the body hidden away. 

A few days later, he shot and killed his former lover David Madson with gunshots to the head and back. Madson’s body was dumped near East Rush Lake in Minnesota.

In May of the same year, Cunanan targeted a well-known 72-year-old real estate developer in Chicago called Lee Miglin – husband of Home Shopping Network star Marilyn Klecka. In a gruesome murder, Miglin had been bound at the hands and feet with duct tape, which was also wrapped around his head. He was then stabbed more than 20 times with a screwdriver and his throat sliced open. “He died a worse death than Christ,” Miglin’s 96-year-old mother, Anna, said when she heard about her son’s brutal slaying, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Cunanan stole Miglin’s car, and less than a week later, murdered a cemetery worker in New Jersey. He then stole that victim’s red truck and drove to Miami, where he would go on to kill Versace on the steps of his multi-million dollar mansion. 

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Darren Criss plays serial killer Cunanan in ‘American Crime Story’ 

Working with the television show America’s Most Wanted, the FBI eventually made Cunanan the 449th addition to its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list on June 12, 1997, after putting together the pieces and realising they were dealing with a single serial killer. 

Eight days after the murder of Versace, Cunanan fatally shot himself on a houseboat just two miles away from the designer’s home. He left no suicide note.

And years later, there are two lingering questions: why did Cunanan kill Versace and why did the FBI not catch him sooner?

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Gianni Versace with his sister Donatella in 1993 

In 1990, Versace and his future killer are believed to have met briefly at Colossus, a nightclub in San Francisco. But other than this, there is no known relationship between the pair. Instead, it seems that Cunanan developed an obsession with the designer – one that would eventually turn deadly.

And on the question of the investigation, actor Edgar Ramirez, who plays Versace in American Crime Story, has publicly attacked the homophobia of the FBI. 

He said in an interview: “The underlying theme of our show is homophobia. We tend to think that in the Nineties that our world was just like the world today and actually it was very different. When you look into this investigation, the element that comes back into the surface constantly is the don’t ask, don’t tell element. This kind of invisibility and this denial of sexuality, denial of existence of a gay world out there.”

He added: “This guy, Andrew Cunanan, he was on national TV for several weeks, he was on the FBI’s most wanted list and for whatever reason it was very hard for the authorities to catch him. Basically, he was killing gay men and didn’t represent a public threat to the authorities at the time. To think that it was only 20 years ago is shocking and frightening because history tends to repeat itself. It’s important to revisit.”

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Diana and Elton John at Versace’s funeral in Milan in July 1997

Tragically, this charge of authorities overlooking crimes against sexual minorities is still just as relevant today. All you need to do is look at the recent case of Stephen Port who brazenly murdered at least four gay men right under the noses of British police.

This latest season of American Crime Story is gruesomely gripping TV – and, importantly, it’s TV with a serious story to tell.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace - American Crime Story continues on BBC Two on Wednesdays at 9pm

(Images: Rex)