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How we covered the ‘real’ assassination of Gianni Versace

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I had completely forgotten Andrew Cunanan. But now, Ryan Murphy’s latest offering in his anthology drama, American Crime Story, is dredging up the ugly memories. Thanks for that, Ryan.

If you know the name, it’s because Cunanan is the spree killer who assassinated Italian fashion prince Gianni Versace, who was shot at the gates of his Miami Beach mansion on July 15, 1997, as he returned from his usual morning coffee-and-paper run to the News Cafe just down Ocean Drive.

Versace, who died at 50, was the last victim of Cunanan.

Gianni Versace’s Miami Beach mansion on Dec. 26, 2017. It’s now a boutique hotel and restaurant where tourists pose in the spot where he was gunned down in 1997. (Photo: Jennifer Kay, AP)

During nearly three months in the summer of 1997, Cunanan killed five men (besides Versace, they were Jeffrey Trail, David Madson, Lee Miglin and William Reese), then managed to elude stumbling law-enforcement agencies, including the FBI, while careening around the country in stolen cars.

They never did catch him; eight days after killing Versace, he was found dead at 27 in a Miami Beach houseboat. He had shot himself with the same gun used to kill Versace and two other victims.

I know all this because I was one of a platoon of USA TODAY reporters who covered the frantic madness that summer. I was a breaking-news reporter and spent a dozen years in San Diego, living near the gay-friendly Hillcrest neighborhood where Cunanan prowled. And I was fast, in that slower, pre-Twitter era. 

But it was 20 years ago, and a slew of other big-news headlines have broken since. I had to go back to the clips in the USA TODAY library to refresh my memory. All too soon, the details came rushing back.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace (premiering Jan. 17 on FX, 10 ET/PT) is based on journalist Maureen Orth’s 1999 book, Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History, based on her reporting for Vanity Fair.

The Versace family has dismissed the series as a “work of fiction.” In a statement issued Monday, the family said it had neither authorized nor been involved in the series. Fair enough.

Edgar Ramirez as Gianni Versace in ‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,’ episode 2, airing Jan. 24, 2018, on FX. (Photo: Jeff Daly/FX)

But the series is at least as much about Cunanan as it is about Versace, and Cunanan remains a maddening mystery, especially regarding his motives, if he had any. Back then, our reporting showed Cunanan was a chameleon-like gigolo with near-legendary charm, who was convivial, mendacious in the extreme and a stone-cold killer.   

At the time, the national interest in the case built slowly: His first four victims (two were friends, two were apparent strangers and none were famous) were killed in late April or early May. I could find only a handful of mentions of Cunanan in USA TODAY before our first major story was published on May 13. After the fourth victim was killed May 9 in New Jersey, just so Cunanan could steal his truck, national news media started taking notice.

Who was this guy? Where is he? Who is next? Are gay men his targets? Will gay men be blamed for his crimes? Why can’t the FBI find him? For Pete’s sake, he’s on the 10 Most Wanted List!  

Gay communities were on high alert as several cities geared up for Gay Pride Month and fears mounted that Cunanan would lure another unsuspecting man to his death. Then the murder of the openly gay, world-famous Versace catapulted the story to front pages around the world, and suddenly it was one of those all-hands-on-deck, 24/7 media onslaughts, a regular thing three years after the O.J. Simpson murder case. 

A few takeaways from the Cunanan story.

  • Americans were (and still are) obsessed with mass murderers, serial  killers and spree killers (and guns), and media outlets try to supply their demand for news. Is it really so surprising that we have more of them now? 
  •  We’ve come a long way in our attitudes toward and treatment of LGBTQ people. A person’s sexual orientation does not automatically incriminate him.
  • Before smartphones and social media, the practice of daily journalism was no different, but it was harder and slower. The mobile phones and laptops were heavier. Goodbye to all that.    
  • Producer Ryan Murphy has his theories, but the depressing fact is we are never going to know for sure why Cunanan became a spree killer. That’s a tragedy for his victims, their families and society at large, but it’s especially irksome to journalists who always want answers. 

How could I have forgotten all of this? Because 39 days later, a speeding car driven by a drunk driver slammed into a pole in a traffic tunnel in Paris, killing Princess Diana and setting off an unprecedented outburst of grief around the world and especially in London, to which I was speedily dispatched.

Only weeks before, Diana, 36, attended her friend Versace’s celeb-packed memorial service in Milan, where she was seen consoling a weeping Elton John, their mutual pal. You can’t make this stuff up.

The summer of 1997 was a big-news bonanza, but not one I’d care to see again. 

 

 

  

 

 

 

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