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There’s Been a Murder at the Versace House

On of July 15, 1997, Gianni Versace was accosted by Andrew Cunanan and shot twice in the face, dying almost instantly.
July 19, 2007 By Matt Meltzer in Miami: Local News  | 2 Comments

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The shooting of famed fashion designer and “King of South Beach” Gianni Versace is perhaps the most visible and memorable homicide in Miami Beach history. And while it involved a cast of characters from Italy to San Diego, Minneapolis to Hamburg, the case and its associated players cannot escape the air of the bizarre and suspicious that any crime committed south of the Georgia border seems to embody. Had Versace been shot in New York or Milan or Los Angeles, it probably would have been your run-of-the mill celebrity shooting. But since it happened in Miami, well, nobody involved seems altogether reputable.

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For those unfamiliar, on the morning of July 15, 1997, Gianni Versace set about his morning routine of walking down Ocean Drive to News Café and purchasing himself a copy of an Italian newspaper. Upon returning to his oceanside mansion, he was accosted by a man named Andrew Cunanan and shot twice in the face, dying almost instantly. This random act of violence against a well-liked celebrity seemed inexplicable. That is, of course, until you examine the killer a little further.

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PREP SCHOOL BOY TURNED GAY SOCIALITE

Andrew Cunanan grew up in San Diego, the son of a Marine officer and his chronically depressed wife. As a teenager, he attended private school in the area where he began to engage in outrageously flamboyant homosexual encounters of which he bragged to other classmates. The perpetually-attention-seeking Cunanan soon began to attend clubs in the local San Diego gay community, attracting the attention of wealthier, older gay men who were favorable to his open nature. This gay party-boy lifestyle continued when he enrolled at the University of California in Berkeley, near San Francisco. He became part of the gay social scene, enjoying the perks that his relationships with wealthier gays afforded him. It was during this time that he met and began affairs with Jeff Trail, a young Naval officer, and architect David Madson.

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Like so many who love to take advantage of richer older men, soon Cunanan’s youth and beauty began to fade and he became depressed. Severely depressed. He returned to San Diego, gained weight, and began to deal drugs to support himself. It was during this depression that Cunanan decided to pay a visit to his former lover Madson who had become acquainted with Trail. He had, coincidentally, moved to the same city. Never one for rational thought, Cunanan soon became a festering volcano of jealousy until one night in April 1997, Madson arranged a meeting between the three to iron out the whole situation. This was, in retrospect, not Madson’s brightest idea.

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A MURDEROUS RAMPAGE BEGINS

No one is certain exactly what took place at this meeting, but at some point Trail said something to Cunanan that was offensive enough for Andrew to bludgeon the former Naval officer to death with a hammer. Never one to intervene, Madson decided it best to let Cunanan get his anger out on Trail, then help him dispose of the body in a rolled up Persian rug. Cunanan showed his gratitude by shooting Madson 3 times once the two fugitives got 45 miles out of town. Minneapolis authorities found both bodies and identified Cunanan as the killer within a few days, but by then nobody knew exactly where he was.

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No one, that is, except Chicago real estate mogul Lee Miglin, who was unfortunate enough to be standing outside his Chicago townhouse on May 3 when Cunanan drove by. It is presumed that the killer forced Miglin back into his home at gunpoint, tied him to a chair, punched and kicked him repeatedly before stabbing him with a pair of garden shears and slitting his throat with a hacksaw. He then took the body out to the garage in a sack and rolled back and forth over Miglin’s body in the developer’s own Lexus until it was barely solid. Cunanan returned to the house, ate some food, slept in Miglin’s bed, and left Chicago the next morning. This after leaving Madson’s red Jeep only a few blocks away, littered in pictures implicating that this, was, in fact Cunanan’s escape vehicle.

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Because he made little effort to escape detection, Cunanan was identified again by Chicago authorities and was tracked by the phone in Miglin’s Lexus. Crazy, but not dumb, Cunanan realized this somewhere in Pennsylvania and discarded the phone, quickly looking for a new vehicle. It did not take him long to find one. Unfortunately the vehicle belonged to 45-year-old William Reese, a cemetery worker in Pennsville, New Jersey. Cunanan did not see this as much of an obstacle, however, and shot Reese for the keys to his red pickup truck. Then, like any good refugee from mainstream society, he headed to South Florida.

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ANOTHER QUALITY INDIVIDUAL DESCENDS ON MIAMI BEACH

Upon arrival in the area, Andrew Cunanan took up residence in the Normandy Plaza hotel on 69th and Collins in Miami Beach. Though he didn’t show his face for a while, knowing full well he was now squarely on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list, he did begin to make the rounds of the various gay nightspots around South Beach. And while it was suspected that Cunanan was hiding out in South Florida, with tips coming in after airings of “America’s Most Wanted” from a Palm Beach courthouse to a Miami Subs on 71st St., nobody really seemed too concerned about a possible serial killer wandering the streets of South Florida. What’s one more?

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Not surprisingly to anyone, WSVN Channel 7 was the only station to do a report on Cunanan before his most infamous shooting. But, again, Channel 7 reporting on a possible life-threatening danger to you and your family is sort of like any other channel reporting the score of a Marlins game. So nobody gave that much notice either.

That was, of course, until the fateful morning of July 15, when Cunanan shot the most famous resident South Beach had to offer. And it was at this point that the story goes from South Florida drifter committing vicious crime to “Only in Miami.”

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STOLE A CAR? KEEP IT IN SOUTH BEACH!

Police soon identified Cunanan as the killer and found his red pickup truck parked in a South Beach garage it had occupied for the previous two months. That is to say a stolen red pickup sat in a public garage for two months without anyone being the wiser. This, of course, teaches us all the valuable lesson that if you want to steal a car and don’t want anyone to know about it, the best place to stick it is a public parking garage in Miami Beach. After all, police actually look in neighborhoods known for chop shops and auto theft. Tourist destinations, though, are excellent locations for fugitive vehicles.

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Upon finding the truck, police found a room key to the Normandy Plaza hotel with room 205 written on the card. This, to many police organizations, might be a good indication of where this FBI 10 Most Wanted fugitive may be. But Beach police being Beach police thought it wiser to pursue some other, more concrete leads than, say, a room key with a number and a hotel written on it. Two days later they decided that it might be a good idea to check the Normandy Plaza and barged in on a rather surprised couple, no doubt enjoying their honeymoon in true Miami fashion; with a SWAT team and gun barrels in their face. Apparently Cunanan thought it a good idea to check out of the Normandy plaza after his picture was plastered over every TV station in America, not just Channel 7.

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It later came to surface that Cunanan had pawned some gold coins he had earlier stolen from Lee Miglin in order to cover the $37 a night the Normandy was charging him. In order to do so, he had to fill out a card with his name, address and thumb print, all of which he did. Under his real name. This was about a week before he shot Versace. One might think that a pawn shop, a spot known for selling dangerous weapons and buying from the desperate, might be a good place to alert if a known fugitive is thought to be in your area. Not so much the case in South Florida, although it is debatable that it would have even mattered in a city where handguns are easier to buy than cold medication. So Cunanan walked in, gave his real name and location, pawned a $50 gold piece stolen from a homicide victim, and walked out. Surprising they didn’t offer to sell him a Tec-9 on his way out.

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South Floridians, as we like to do from time to time, worked ourselves in to a tizzy, locking doors and looking around corners since there was a serial killer on the loose. Police, state and federal agents set out on a massive manhunt for Cunanan, rumors circulating that he was about to leave the country. Or, even worse, disguising himself as a woman to evade capture. After all, in South Beach, a man dressed as a woman is hardly going to stick out. The FBI offered up a reward, as did the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the City of Miami Beach, Metro-Dade, a New York anti-violence group and the City of New York. Presumably for the security of its residents during long weekends.

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THERE’S A MAN ON THIS BOAT AND HE MIGHT HAVE SHOT ME

It was not until July 23 that authorities were able to locate the most wanted man in America. Was it a massive surveillance dragnet that nabbed this psychotic killer? A police raid? A well-executed under-cover operation? No, no. It was an old man who spoke no English who thought maybe he heard gunshots and actually hadn’t. Fernando Carreira, a 71-year-old caretaker of a houseboat on 52nd and Collins, went in to do his usual rounds of the boat. He claimed to have seen a stranger on the boat who fired a single shot at him before Carreira ran off. After failing 3 times to call authorities from his cell phone, he then alerted his son who called 911.

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The operator, speaking in Spanish to the elder Mr. Carreira, got the description of the assailant as a young man with dark hair, a description which readily applied to Cunanan. Police from the City of Miami Beach and Metro Dade surrounded the shuttered houseboat for several hours until finally storming the vessel in search of the killer. And what did Beach police find upon entering the boat? According to first reports, nothing. As in no body, no Cunanan, no gun, nothing. So much so that the early edition of the next day’s Miami Herald read “Under Siege: Search Comes up Empty.” An hour later, though, police were telling a different story.

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NO DEAD BODIES HERE, JUST A GUY WITH A HOLE IN HIS HEAD

The official version given by Miami Beach Police is that Metro Cops went in, found the body, and announced “clear” over the radio, which Beach police took to mean that nothing was in the boat. They then made that announcement. Within an hour, of course, when a second raid was made and the body was found, they realized there had been some sort of a mistake. Some may argue that it’s tough to miss a bloody corpse with half its face blown off lying in the middle of a houseboat. Others might argue that police lied to keep the media from storming the boat. One or two might actually believe that it was a communication error. Any story you choose to believe, Cunanan was found dead, victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. His suicide his last, desperate cry for attention before ending his life.

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IF YOU’RE EVER IN VEGAS AND YOU NEED A FAKE PASSPORT…

But what exactly was Cunanan doing on this boat? As it turned out the boat belonged to a German businessman named Torsten Reineck. Initially disregarded as coincidence, Reineck split his time between Miami and Las Vegas where he ran a health club that fronted as a gay bathhouse. So Cunanan shoots one wealthy gay man and hides out on the boat of another. Apparently, Reineck was known in Las Vegas as Doc Ruehl, a supposed ear, nose and throat specialist who was very prominent in the Vegas gay scene. Doc was also known for not paying many of his business associates and getting angry very easily. Before he was the nefarious Doc Ruehl, Reineck was implicated in an array of document forging cases stemming from his ownership of a printing company in Hamburg. He was also wanted in Europe for non-payment of $500,000 in back taxes. So a man needing to leave the country is hiding out on the boat of a shady gay foreign businessman who is a suspected document forger? The connection, though, was never put together.

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As for Carreira, the caretaker of the boat? Well, apparently the reward money he deserved from all the various organizations was not really intended for him. As in when they say “Any tips leading to the capture of this criminal,” they apparently mean “show up with this guy in the passenger seat of your car and we’ll THINK about giving you the money.” The FBI, who operates under normal rules, and the New York anti-violence group both agreed to pay the $10,000 each they had promised. However the City of Miami Beach and Metro Dade hemmed and hawed, discussing whether or not he had previous knowledge or if he had even, actually, led them to find Cunanan. Obviously, some believed they would have found him on the boat eventually. It was only when Carreira threatened to sue and investigations were closed that he ever got his money. The City of New York, as they do to so many people, gave Carreira the finger and left him with nothing. This was before Rudy Giuliani was considering running for president.

Carreira, though, fared alright in the end, collecting $55,000 in reward money and getting an endorsement deal from Caretaker Quick Draw, manufacturers of a $25 pistol holder. Hopefully, he learned English in time for the TV spots.

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It is still unknown what Cunanan’s connection to Versace was. Most people familiar with the case say that the two knew a lot of people in common. Those close to both say they had met a few times over cocktails. One couple suggested they had seen the two together watching the movie “Contact” on a night prior to the shooting, but that is mere speculation. Still, the coincidences and similar social circles are very closely linked, and most speculate that the two, at the very least, had met before Versace’s death. Given that Cunanan was not a mentally stable person, it is still a mystery why he chose Versace as his victim, if it was a random act, a pre-planned murder from the beginning, or an idea that came to him as he settled in South Beach. Many think that his suicide was carried out so as to leave everyone with a mystery surrounding him. So that his name would never be forgotten and that he would remain interesting. And that may be true in some respect, but sadly for Cunanan, his name was out of the headlines almost as soon as it was in them. A month later Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris, and Andrew Cunanan became just another crazy character in the colorful history of South Florida Crime.

Related Categories:True Crime Stories Miami: Local News,

About the Author: Matt Meltzer is a featured columnist at Miami Beach 411.

See more articles by Matt Meltzer.

See more articles by Matt Meltzer

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2 Comments on

"There’s Been a Murder at the Versace House"

RoJager says:

My family and I visited the Art Deco section of South Beach the other night!
We ran into a helpful tour guide across the street from the Giani Versace Casa who offered to take a picture of us.  He then requested a small service Fee which my wife promtly paid (she is a great and compassionate gal).  Upon viewing the street from end to end taking in the nefarious nightlife.  We (the four of us)walked by our photographer an hour and it was clear from the blank look and the “hi how are you response” that he failed to remember the service fee or US!  Must have been an MIT grad!

Posted on 07/22/2008 at 2:55 PM

karla says:

I just wrote a whole, and very interesting comment regarding your article and the case in general-and it wasn’t posted because I did not provide my email address—I wonder why my address is required?  HHHMMMM…. my suspicions have just been slightly more justified because of that….but i am not afraid to give it…I don’t think the FBI or mafia-would go out of their way to kill little ole’ me just because I say I am a psychic, and that i believe the whole story given to us from the FBI is a coverup-and not the truth.

Posted on 12/16/2009 at 8:21 PM

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