Andrew Phillip Cunanan was born on 31st August 1969, the youngest of four children born to US Navy marine, Modesto Cunanan and wife Mary Anne. By the time of his arrival, his parent’s marriage had deteriorated to a point where he was raised primarily by his father, due to his mother’s chronic depression, caused by the state of her marriage. Although financially comfortable, the young Cunanan sought refuge from the domestic strife, by retreating into the world of adventure novels and comic book fantasies.
These fantasies spilled into his real life and tales of his perfect home life, told to school friends, grew increasingly outlandish, and earned him a reputation as a fantasist.
Following his father’s retirement from the Navy, and new found wealth in his job as a stockbroker, Cunanan was sent to a private school in San Diego, where homosexual encounters in his early teens enhanced his already notorious reputation. With his flamboyant, attention-seeking nature well established, he was open about his sexual conquests to other classmates, and earned himself the sobriquet “Most likely not to be forgotten” in the school yearbook. Physically mature for his age, the precocious teen was frequenting the gay bars and clubs of San Diego years ahead of his contemporaries.
After graduation, Cunanan enrolled at the University of California as a history major, but his social life on the gay scene took precedence over everything else. Taking his reinvention fantasies to another level, he developed a myriad of alter egos, realising that the life of a high-class escort, supported by a steady stream of older gay men, was infinitely preferable to studying or working for a living. Through these relationships with financial high-flyers Cunanan gained access to the highest echelons of San Diego society, developing an expensive taste for all the material gain that this lifestyle offered.
The financial success of Cunanan’s father, Modesto, was short-lived, and he was forced to flee to the Philippines following allegations of financial fraud. His mother was forced to sell the family home, to support herself and, around the same time, she became aware of Cunanan’s lifestyle. Following a row with his mother, Cunanan decided to drop out of college and follow his father to the Philippines, but he soon missed the perks of his high-flying lifestyle, and returned to the States as soon as he was able, settling in San Francisco, which offered a far more diverse gay culture than that available in San Diego.
Always considered the “gay capital” of the USA, San Francisco provided direct access to Hollywood glamour, and his persuasive way with elder men saw him mingling with the world’s superstar elite. It is believed that he met fashion guru Gianni Versace during this time, setting in motion a chain of events that would be the downfall of them both.
Counterbalancing this overt life of glamour and wealth was a far murkier world, of unrestricted sexual excess and sadomasochistic pornography, which Cunanan entered into willingly. Relishing the role of sex slave, up for anything given the right financial incentive, his combination of prep school polish and S&M placed him in demand, and gave him an entrée into the highest gay circles.
During this time in San Francisco he met two of the other protagonists in the violent acts that were to play out prior to the murder of Versace: the young Naval officer Jeffrey Trail, whom he had an affair with, and the architect David Madson, another of his lovers.
This life of excess and drugs took its toll, however, and by late1996 Cunanan found himself, at 27, no longer the focus of the youth-obsessed gay culture of San Francisco. When his succession of wealthy patrons dried up, Cunanan was without support and virtually penniless, having never held a regular job. Believing that he might be suffering the first symptoms of HIV infection, he went for a test in early 1997, but never returned for the results. He descended instead into a depression that saw him gain weight and lose interest in his personal appearance, allegedly dealing drugs to support himself.
Despondent at his fall from grace, he went to visit architect David Madson in Minneapolis, where he had moved, and discovered that he had become acquainted with Trail, who had left the Navy and coincidentally also migrated to the same city.
Cunanan was reportedly jealous of the professional and financial success of both of his previous lovers, in stark relief to his own circumstances, and became obsessed with the belief that they were having an affair behind his back.
This jealousy increased over the following months, despite their denials until, on 26th April 1997, Cunanan returned to Minneapolis determined to get the truth. Despite warnings from mutual friends about Cunanan’s state of mental health, Madson does not appear to have taken this seriously, and he arranged for Trail to visit his apartment the next evening, so that they could both address Cunanan’s suspicions head-on.
This proved a disastrous plan: Cunanan and Trail had a heated argument that quickly became violent, with Cunanan taking a kitchen hammer and bludgeoning Trail to death in front of the terrified Madson. They rolled his bloody corpse into a Persian rug, and made good a plan of escape. Why Madson agreed to assist Cunanan after the attack remains a mystery but, when concerned work colleagues reported that Madson had disappeared, an investigation of his apartment revealed Trail’s dead body, and the two were forced to flee the city in Madson’s Jeep.
Police discovered evidence at Madson’s apartment that immediately identified Cunanan as the killer, but had no idea where the two had disappeared. On 29th April 1997, Madson’s body was discovered 45 miles north of Minneapolis: he had been shot three times. It became clear to the police that Cunanan had struck again.
Cunanan’s next victim was a 72-year-old Chicago real estate mogul, Lee Miglin, who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, on 3rd May 1997: Cunanan gained access to his home, where he was tied up, subjected to horrific torture which included punching, kicking and stabbing with garden shears, before he finally sawed open Miglin’s throat with a small hacksaw. Following this brutal attack, Cunanan stole some personal items from the house, including some gold coins, and made off in Miglin’s Lexus.
This third death was also linked to Cunanan, who made no effort to conceal his tracks, and the FBI was alerted, quickly launching a countrywide manhunt. Although initially able to track his movements through his use of the in-car telephone in the Lexus, Cunanan’s trail went cold when he ditched the phone, and began looking for a replacement vehicle.
By this time he had travelled to Pennsville, New Jersey, where the caretaker of the local cemetery, 45-year-old William Reese, was Cunanan’s next victim of convenience, on 9th May 1997, shot dead for the keys to his red pickup truck.
Cunanan then drove down to Miami, Florida in Reese’s stolen truck, where he arrived the next day, taking a long-term hotel rental in a beachfront hotel that had seen better days, intending to settle in Miami. Initially careful of frequenting the gay nightlife of Miami, as police were still conducting a nationwide search, as time passed he grew bolder in his behaviour, using his well honed “chameleon” skills to blend in with the locals.
Despite three appearances on America’s Most Wanted, the nationwide hunt for Cunanan showed little progress; the killer’s lack of care about covering his trail was counter-balanced by the incompetence of the police forces hunting him who wasted a number of opportunities to bring him to justice. In one instance he was recognised in a Miami shop, but was allowed to leave, unhindered, while a shop assistant went to alert the police. On another occasion, he pawned the gold coins stolen from Miglin, which required him to produce identification for security reasons, which he did. This was sent to the local police, in accordance with regulations designed to identify wanted felons, but the information was never followed up, and the connection never made.
It’s not known whether he travelled to Miami specifically to seek out Versace, or whether his selection as a target arose out of the fashion guru’s almost mystical status amongst the inhabitants of South Beach, but within a few weeks he had selected his target, and made plans to establish an encounter with Versace, staking out the areas around Versace’s South Beach villa where the designer went to relax. The conjecture is that he selected Versace as the epitome of success and glamour that Cunanan had always aspired to, alternately that he symbolised the wealthy elder men who had let Cunanan down, forcing him into his current predicament.
Whatever the reason, on the morning of 15th July 1997, Cunanan walked up to Versace on the steps of his Miami home, where he had just returned from his regular morning coffee, and fired two shots into the back of the designer’s head.
In a country inured to random acts of violence, the death of four ordinary people at the hands of Cunanan was hardly worthy of column inches, and his capture was of interest only to close family and the law enforcement agencies involved.
Versace’s death, however, brought the full weight of global media scrutiny to bear on his South Beach slaughter, and networks scrambled for any news, no matter how implausible, about the whereabouts of Versace’s killer. Cunanan’s sordid past was grist to the endless tabloid media mill, and political pressure ensured that hundreds of FBI agents were assigned to facilitate his capture. To local forces, there was no other crime more important, smarting at the criticism of having lost opportunities for capture, that might have saved Versace’s life, when the earlier blunders came to light. Cunanan had achieved his life’s ambition: the attention of the world’s media was focussed squarely on him.
The operational errors made by the authorities continued, although now they were firmly in the public domain, given the media scrutiny after Versace’s death. When the pawnshop information became available, the police raided the hotel Cunanan had listed on the form, but were given the wrong room number by reception: unsurprisingly, the room was empty. When the hotel discovered the error two days later, they again alerted the police but, with 48 hours warning, Cunanan was long gone.
With Cunanan’s image plastered everywhere, his options became very limited indeed: he sought refuge in a luxurious houseboat but was discovered there, on 23rd July 1997, by a security guard doing his rounds at the marina, who recognised Cunanan and immediately alerted the authorities.
Determined not to lose Cunanan yet again, hundreds of law enforcement officers descended upon the houseboat, and a three-hour standoff ensued, with FBI agents gradually inching closer to the boat, using a loud-hailer to demand that Cunanan give himself up. Finally, a gas grenade assault was launched, and agents stormed the boat. They found Cunanan’s body in an upstairs bedroom: he had shot himself with the same gun that he had used to kill Madson & Reese.