Serial murder suspect hunted in Versace killing Fashion designer is shot down in front of Miami Beach villa; Witnesses follow gunman; he escapes

MIAMI -- Gianni Versace, a king of the fashion world whose flamboyant designs helped build a global empire, was killed yesterday on the steps of his palatial villa in chic South Beach.

Police said they have a prime suspect in the case, Andrew Phillip Cunanan, one of the country's most wanted fugitives, who is already a suspect in four other slayings.


Versace was shot twice in the head as he returned from an early morning walk to buy magazines.

More than 12 hours later, Miami Beach police Chief Richard Barreto identified the suspect as Cunanan, 27, who was being sought in the slayings of four men from Minneapolis to New Jersey.


Cunanan was known to move in gay circles; Versace was gay.

"It's not clear that he knows all his victims," FBI special agent in charge Paul Philip said. "Everybody's at risk.

"Everybody's got to help us put this guy in jail."

Immediately after the 9 a.m. shooting, several witnesses followed the gunman as he left Versace bleeding and entered a parking garage, said Miami Beach City Manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa.

At one point, realizing he was being followed, the man turned and pointed a handgun at one pursuer, who dropped to the sidewalk.

At the parking garage, witnesses say, the killer got into a red Chevrolet truck, changed clothes and then left on foot.

Police found bloody clothes under the truck, which was parked on the top floor of the four-story structure.

Police said they believe Cunanan stole a red pickup truck after his last suspected slaying, that of a cemetery caretaker in New Jersey.


Cunanan is charged in the May slaying of a Minneapolis architect who had once been his lover; he is the prime suspect in the killings of another former boyfriend in the Minneapolis area and a Chicago businessman.

WTVJ-TV in Miami quoted unnamed police sources as saying Versace was killed with a .40-caliber handgun, the same caliber weapon used in the slayings Cunanan is suspected of committing.

Cunanan -- who is white, 5 feet 10 inches tall and 160 to 180 pounds -- has been the subject of intense media coverage and a nationwide manhunt by the FBI, which posted a $10,000 reward for information leading to his capture.

His estranged mother described him to the Chicago Sun-Times as a "high-class homosexual prostitute."

Yesterday's killing of Versace stunned this funky enclave often dubbed Soho in the Sun.

Swarms of mourners and reporters gathered outside the wrought iron gates of Versace's Spanish-style mansion to talk about the Italian designer.


"Versace meant class, money and style," Annmarie Iweimrin, 23, said as she fingered her Versace sunglasses and glanced toward the estate.

She and a friend vacationing here felt compelled to visit after hearing about the murder yesterday morning.

"I was shocked. I want to know why someone would do this."

There were few answers but many expressions of grief.

Fans left flowers on the sidewalk to cover the blood-stained pavement. A skater broke down in tears in the middle of the street. And others prayed quietly on a grassy embankment not far from the beach.

On a sultry, overcast afternoon, shock and disbelief seemed to have replaced the usual party atmosphere at the sidewalk cafes, trendy shops and pastel-painted art deco hotels.


Versace (pronounced ver-SAH-chay) had fit perfectly into this colorful, dramatic world. The 50-year-old designer -- a favorite with rock stars, supermodels and socialites -- was the master of overstatement, often favoring black leather and body-hugging designs.

Versace established himself in the 1980s as one of Italy's two premier designers, along with Giorgio Armani.

Versace was the innovator: daring, startling, flashy, more about style than fashion, ever generous with the gold braid, the metallic studs.

His flamboyant creations included Michael Jackson's red leather jacket in the "Thriller" music video. He also was the guy who put Don Johnson in T-shirts and linen jackets for "Miami Vice."

"I think it's the responsibility of a designer to try to break rules and barriers," he once said. "I'm a little like Marco Polo, going around and mixing cultures."

Such major museums as Chicago's Art Institute, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tokyo Fashion Institute have enshrined his work in their permanent collections, and he has adorned such disparate fashion plates as Elton John, Princess Diana and Lisa Marie Presley.


His boutiques now number more than 200. Last year, Versace opened his "world flagship" store in a 28,000-square-foot restored Vanderbilt townhouse on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

Quoted in a 1984 book on Italian fashion, he said, "Gianni Versace is a reality. Even if I were to die tomorrow, my partners would hire another designer and would keep going, because the company has a structure and a solid foundation."

In 1993, he won fashion's equivalent of the Oscar: the Council of Fashion Designers of America's first International Award.

Versace was born Dec. 2, 1946, in the industrial town of Reggio Calabria, in the "toe" of Italy's boot.

He was the second of three children of Antonio Versace, a natural gas supplier, and Francesca, a dressmaker/boutique owner.

His older brother, Santo, became CEO of Gianni Versace Co. His sister, Donatella, 42, became his confidant and a partner. She's frequently mentioned as his logical successor in the business.


Late yesterday, Santo and Donatella Versace issued a brief statement thanking "all those who wish to respect, in silence," their grief.

At Versace headquarters in Italy, a neoclassical palazzo in downtown Milan, the front doors were closed. A woman left the building weeping and was taken away in a car.

Reactions poured in from celebrities and fashion-watchers.

"Gianni Versace together with a handful of names symbolizes the success of Italian fashion all over the world," said Armani. "My reaction is one of revolt against such an unnatural and violent death and one of profound grief."

"I am just so stunned. I am at a complete loss for words," said supermodel Kate Moss.

"Gianni was a rare talent," said Lisa Marie Presley, "a genius as a designer and, more importantly, a wonderful friend whose warmth and generosity I will miss terribly."


"He doesn't die a dressmaker, he dies as a man who made fashion an international language more than any other designer today," said Richard Martin, fashion historian and director of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In Miami, his multimillion-dollar home was lavish, with dramatic columns, ornate mosaics and a vast household staff. At a recent birthday party there for Madonna, a birthday cake floated in the sea-blue pool.

Sam Estrada, a free-lance movie director vacationing in South Beach, took comfort in seeing so many people paying homage to Versace.

"This is all everybody has been talking about," said Estrada, a fan of the designer. "It feels good to see so many people remembering him. It's like worldwide mourning."

At the News Cafe, where Versace shopped early yesterday, employees hung his photo over a bouquet of orchids and roses. Inside, they had put on the counter copies of the magazines he had bought -- People, the New Yorker, Vogue, Entertainment Weekly and the Spanish version of Newsweek.

Restaurant employees described him as a quiet, down-to-earth man who would come in for breakfast wearing torn blue jeans and a T-shirt.


"I guess it doesn't matter how much money you have. It doesn't buy you safety," said Carlos Matallana, a waiter.

Jefford Curre, a record producer who was walking down Ocean Drive, expressed similar sentiments.

"As hard as some people try to be normal, wealth has this insane way of trapping you," said Curre, who divides his time between his native Bahamas and South Beach.

"For the few people who try to be normal, it seems like society says to them, 'You have to have your bodyguards.' People are talking about this as a big hit. It's a better movie that way. But it could also be a class thing."

Around the corner from the cafe, the Versace store was closed yesterday. Employees and clients at other designer shops nearby were struggling to come to grips with losing such a fashion icon.

"In Miami, it's Versace," said Christine Terra, 24, a sales associate at the a.b.s. designer shop next door to Versace. "Everyone was inspired by him. He set the mood for the season.


"The scene here is small. He was a big part of it. Everybody feels like he was one of us. The somber mood isn't going to go away fast."

Slayings linked to Andrew Phillip Cunanan

Andrew Phillip (above), 27, suspected of being a serial killer, has already been charged in one killing and named as the prime suspect in four others:

Minneapolis, April 29: Police discover the bludgeoned body of Jeffrey Trail rolled in a carpet in the apartment of architect David Madson. The FBI said Trail and Cunanan were lovers and that Trail knew Madson.

Rush City, Minn., May 3: Madson's body is found by fishermen on the edge of a lake north of Minneapolis. He had been shot three times. Police say that Madson and Cunanan were once lovers, but that Madson had ended the relationship because he considered Cunanan "shady." Cunanan is charged in Madson's slaying.

Chicago, May 4: Body of millionaire real estate developer Lee Miglin is found stabbed and slashed in the garage next to his townhouse. The next morning, police discover Madson's red Jeep Cherokee parked near Miglin's home. Miglin's green 1994 Lexus is missing.


Pennsville, N.J., May 9: Cemetery caretaker William Reese is found shot to death near Miglin's abandoned Lexus.

Miami Beach, Fla., July 15: Designer Gianni Versace is shot twice in the back of the head outside his oceanfront villa.

Source: Associated Press

Pub Date: 7/16/97