The intense fascination that psychotic killers can exert on the public imagination has rarely been demonstrated more strikingly than in the summer of 1997, when – during a few gripping weeks in July – a brash twenty-seven-year-old multi-murderer named Andrew Cunanan held the whole nation, and indeed much of the world, in thrall. From a brazen but relatively obscure FBI fugitive, whose mug shot was familiar only to followers of the Bureau’s “Ten Most-Wanted” list, Cunanan – in one shockingly savage act – became an overnight media obsession, his face suddenly featured on front pages and tabloid TV shows all across the country. His name seemed to be on everyone’s lips, his snapshots on covers from Newsweek to the National Enquirer, while his shadowy presence was spotted by jittery witnesses in every contiguous state in the union.
Even after he came to his predictable bad end, he continued to preoccupy the public, partly because his motives remained so deeply enigmatic. His case thus raises tantalizing – and significant – questions, not only about the psychological sources of homicidal mania but also about the seemingly irresistible appeal that certain kinds of sensational crimes have for us. What makes a human time bomb like Cunanan tick? Why was the nation so enthralled by him? And why do some criminals – even those who perpetrate acts of extreme, sadistic violence – fail to grip the public’s interest, while others achieve celebrity (sometimes even legendary) status?
One characteristic that Cunanan most assuredly did not possess, however, was the virtue implied by his father’s first name: Modesto. From his days at the elite Bishop’s (prep) School in La Jolla, he behaved in a style that seemed, in part, a healthy (even admirable) display of gay pride, and partly a frantic bid for attention and notoriety. Posing in one yearbook photo like a Calvin Klein model – white shirt unbuttoned to display his chiseled abs – and arriving at a school dance in a red patent-leather jumpsuit provided by his older male date, Cunanan seemed determined to live up to the title conferred on him by his classmates: “Most Likely Not to be Forgotten.”
For a young man so hungry for distinction, it must have come as a devastating blow when his Filipino father – after reportedly being accused of scamming money from his clients – fled to Manila in 1988, plunging his family into hardship. Cunanan, then nineteen and a freshman at the University of California at San Diego, dropped out of school to join his father but was soon back in the states, apparently appalled by the squalor in which Modesto was living.
By the early ’90s, Cunanan had become a conspicuous, even flashy figure on the San Francisco gay scene. Assuming a variety of guises – Andrew Desilva, a Hollywood hotshot with a Riviera mansion; Lieutenant Commander Cummings, a naval officer and graduate of Choate and Yale – he dined at the toniest restaurants, dressed impeccably in blazers and ascots, puffed contraband Cohibas, and sipped only the finest champagne. He was, by all accounts, extremely good company: a facile conversationalist, self-possessed, vivacious, and well informed. But even those who enjoyed socializing with him often perceived his behavior – his insistence on picking up the tab at every trendy eatery he patronized, for example – as a symptom of his lust for attention, a desperate need to show off, to prove that he was someone of stature.
In truth, far from being a person of any importance whatsoever, the unemployed Cunanan was entirely dependent on the largesse of others, who really did wield the power. Though his mother would later bitterly describe him as a “high-class male prostitute,” Cunanan was actually more of a male mistress or giggolo – the kept companion of a succession of older gay men who would lavish clothes, cars, money, and gifts on him. What made Cunanan so appealing wasn’t his appearance (as various acquaintances would attest, on the conventional 10-scale of physical attractiveness, Cunanan rated a 5) so much as his personality, intelligence, and social skills. And also – reportedly – his taste for kinky sex: his apparently riveting combination of preppie polish and S&M abandon.
By the fall of 1996, however, something – no one knows or may ever know exactly what – caused Cunanan’s glitzy world to come apart. Some former acquaintances have hinted that the problem involved drugs; others point to a crisis in his relationship with his last benefactor, an elderly arts patron who abruptly dumped him. Whatever the case, one thing is certain: the hedonistic, status-crazed Cunanan went, more or less overnight, from a life of extreme comfort and glamour – driving a brand-new Infiniti, living luxuriously in his gentleman-friend’s oceanfront home, spending his $2,500 monthly allowance on expensive clothes, fancy food, 10-inch Havanas, and Veuve Clicquot champagne – to a sordid, desperate existence. Always obsessive about his appearance, he let himself go to seed, giving up jogging, putting on weight, showing up at his old haunts looking despondent and disheveled. He moaned about his loneliness – complained to bartenders that he couldn’t even “get a date.”
There had been only one “perfect” relationship in his life, he told a friend – a handsome Minneapolis architect named David Madson. But Madson had been trying to distance himself from Cunanan, reportedly because Cunanan – to make ends meet after being ditched by his sugar daddy – had begun peddling drugs (and, according to rumor, consuming them in increasing quantities.)
In mid-April, Cunanan told acquaintances that he was moving to San Francisco. At his farewell party at a chic San Diego restaurant, he dined on beef tenderloin, ostrich, and trout. Shortly thereafter – having persuaded his credit-card company to allow one more purchase on his overextended card – he bought a one-way, first-class airline ticket.
But not to San Francisco.
He was on his way to Minneapolis – to “settle some business,” as he confided to a friend.
What we do know is this:
On the night Cunanan arrived in Minneapolis, Madson took him out to dinner and introduced him to friends. Some of these were dazzled by Cunanan’s charm; others considered him a pompous, name-dropping egomaniac.
Two nights later – on April 27 – Cunanan invited a twenty-eight-year-old friend named Jeffrey Trail over to Madson’s loft apartment in a trendy warehouse. There have been conflicting accounts of Trail’s relationship with Cunanan. Some have described Trail – a former San Diego navy officer who had moved to Minnesota in November, 1996, to take a job with a propane-gas company – as a “straight arrow” who played the part of a “big brother” in Cunanan’s life. Others have suggested that the two men were onetime lovers and that Trail had subsequently become sexually involved with David Madson.
Depending on which of these situations is true, the events that followed may well have been precipitated by one of two causes. According to one theory, Trail had antagonized the increasingly unstable Cunanan by expressing his intense disapproval of Cunanan’s drug use. This led to a violent falling – out between the two men. The alternate theory holds that Cunanan was sent into a jealous frenzy by Trail’s affair with Madson.
Whatever the case, we do know that just before ten p.m. on April 27, some neighbors of Madson’s heard violent shouting coming from his place, followed by several loud thuds.
Two days later, police found Jeff Trail’s body rolled up in a carpet in Madson’s apartment. He had been bludgeoned to death with over two dozen savage hammer blows to the face and head.
Two days after this grisly discovery, on Thursday, May 1, Cunanan drove with Dave Madson to a lake about fifty miles north of Minneapolis and there – using Jeff Trail’s handgun – pumped several .40-caliber Golden Saver bullets into the head of the man he had once described as “the love of my life.”
By the time a fisherman stumbled on Madson’s corpse, Cunanan was long gone, having fled southeast in the victim’s red Jeep. He next turned up in Chicago, where he somehow gained entrance to the home of a seventy-two-year-old real-estate mogul named Lee Miglin. There is no evidence that Cunanan had every met, let alone had a personal relationship with, the older man – though he may have known Miglin by name. What Cunanan needed from the millionaire developer was cash, a change of clothes, and a new getaway car. For reasons unknown – beyond the rampaging homicidal frenzy that now had Cunanan in its grip – he subjected Miglin to a horrific form of torture, wrapping the victim’s head in duct tape with breathing space at the nose, then stabbing him repeatedly with pruning shears before cutting open his throat with a gardening saw.
Heading eastward in Miglin’s green 1994 Lexus, Cunanan next killed a forty-five-year-old cemetery caretaker named William Resse in Pennsville, New Jersey, shooting the victim in the head with the same .40-caliber pistol he had used to slay Madson, then making off in Reese’s red 1995 Chevy pickup. The date was Friday, May 9.
In less than two weeks, the onetime party boy had brutally murdered four men in a cross-country odyssey of death.
That notorious accomplishment still lay two months in the future.
In the meantime, Cunanan made his way southward, stopping off briefly in New York City, stealing a license plate in South Carolina, and then arriving at his ultimate destination – Miami Beach, where he checked into a down-at-the-heels hotel called the Normandy Plaza on May 12. For two months, Cunanan left his room mainly at night to hit the glitzy gay clubs of South Beach. During the days, he holed up in his room, subsisting largely on takeout pizza and subs, and whiling away his time with TV, fashion magazines, and S&M pornography.
In early June, he moved his red pickup truck to a South Beach parking garage – just two blocks away from the palatial residence known as Casa Casuarina, owned by the celebrated fashion designer Gianni Versace.
During a stopover on his way to Cuba in 1991, Versace had fallen in love with South Beach, a fifteen-block stretch of Art Deco hotels and sidewalk cafes facing the oceanfront. Not long afterward, he purchased a pair of run-down Ocean Drive buildings and spent $35 million to renovate them into his spectacular residence. The presence of the ultraglamorous designer had a galvanizing effect on the seedy neighborhood, instantly transforming it into a chic, trendy enclave. Though Versace owned equally spectacular homes in other locales – a magnificent East Side town house in Manhattan, a seventeenth-century palazzo in Milan, a seventeen-room villa on Lake Como – the Ocean Drive mansion occupied a special place in his heart, partly (and ironically) because he felt so safe and free in the neighborhood. He dismissed his bodyguards, unplugged the mansion’s security system, and moved around as casually as any unremarkable mortal.
At around 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, July 14, Versace – following his usual morning routine – left Casa Casuarina and strolled a few blocks away to the News Café, where he purchased coffee and a handful of magazines. A few minutes later, he was back home. As he was opening the ornate wrought-iron gates to his Mediterranean-style mansion, a young man in a white shirt, gray shorts, and black backpack strode up and shot the fifty- year-old Versace twice in the head with a .40-caliber pistol.
As Versace collapsed onto the stone steps of his palazzo, his companion, Antonio D’Amico, rushed outside and pursued the assassin, who suddenly swung around, aimed his gun at D’Amico, and waved him away without firing. Then the killer dashed into a nearby parking garage.
It was there that police investigators found the red Chevy pickup that had been stolen from the slain New Jersey cemetery worker, William Reese. Inside the truck were the bloody clothes worn by Versace’s killer and a U.S. passport in the name of Andrew Phillip Cunanan.
While his family, fans, and seemingly limitless circle of superstar friends mourned Versace’s death – and tourists by the busload arrived at the Casa Casuarina to snap souvenir photos of the bloodstained steps where he had fallen – Andrew Cunanan became the most frenetically publicized psycho killer since Jeffrey Dahmer. His face became a front-page fixture on newspapers throughout the country and was blazoned on the covers of magazines from Newsweek to People. TV stations and radio talk shows devoted countless hours to the story. Rumors about the reportedly “cunning, brazen, Jekyll-Hyde” killer abounded: He was taunting the police, playing cat-and-mouse with the authorities. He had purchased female clothing so he could disguise himself in drag. He was taking revenge on people he suspected of having given him AIDS.
Meanwhile, a mammoth manhunt – one of the largest in Florida, if not U.S., history – was launched. But Cunanan remained maddeningly elusive. In the popular imagination, he was quickly transformed into a figure of almost mythic proportions: a shadowy, demonically cunning, cross-dressing serial killer whose ability to outsmart the police seemed nothing short of preternatural.
Among criminologists and other experts, however, there quickly arose one hotly debated issue: Could Cunanan be considered a serial killer at all? On one side stood those like John Douglas (former FBI agent, best-selling author, and reputed inspiration for the Jack Crawford character in Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs), who argued that Cunanan absolutely “fit the classic profile of a sexually predatory killer.”
On the other side were people like Douglas’s former colleague Robert Ressler – the man who coined the term “serial killer” – who insisted that the “people who are calling [Cunanan] a serial killer are grossly misinformed.” The profile that Cunanan fit, according to Ressler, was that of the classic spree killer.
My own position conforms closely to Ressler’s. The term “serial killer” was coined to describe lifelong sexual psychopaths like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, et al. To all external appearances, such men lead perfectly normal, even crushingly dull lives – while simultaneously conducting secret careers of unimaginable violence and sadism. They begin to demonstrate their twisted proclivities at an early age, by torturing small animals, practicing juvenile pyromania, etc. As they grow older and embark on their adult crimes, they tend to be obsessed with a particular type of victim (for example – as in the case of David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz – young women with long brown hair, parted in the middle) and to commit their atrocities in highly repetitive, ritualistic ways.
And, as a general rule, they do their best to remain anonymous. They do not want to be stopped, because they get such intense, perverted satisfaction from what they are doing. The public knows that a serial killer is at large when the dismembered corpses start piling up. But they don’t know who the killer is, leading the media to come up with catchy nicknames: “The Nightstalker,” “The Hillside Strangler,” “The Zodiac Killer.”
With one exception – the sadistic nature of the Miglin murder – almost nothing about Cunanan’s behavior fits this profile. Until the slaying of Jeff Trail – whose savagery makes it seem like a classic crime of passion, not an act of sadistic, ritualistic lust-murder – Cunanan had rarely displayed any particularly violent tendencies. Apart from their common gender, his victims differed in every way, as did his methods of dispatching them. Some of the murders – Reese’s, for example, and probably Miglin’s – were purely opportunistic, perpetrated because Cunanan needed transportation and money. And far from trying – or even wanting – to remain anonymous, Cunanan was known to the police and public from the very start. Indeed, he left a trail of clues that a blind man could follow (not far from Jeff Trail’s corpse, for example, police not only found the bloody murder weapon but a gym bag monogrammed with Cunanan’s name and containing an empty holster and a used box of .40-caliber Gold Saber bullets). There has certainly never been a serial killer in history whose face has been on the nightly news while he was still at large.
In short, Cunanan falls into the category of the reckless, rampaging spree killer, who is sent over the edge by some extreme personal crisis and goes off on a wildly destructive, often far-ranging reign of terror that leave a variety of victims in its wake: some of them deliberate targets against whom the killer has some kind of grudge, others who are just unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In the days following Versace’s murder, deciding what category of criminal psychopathology Cunanan conformed to was more than just an academic exercise, or a way of filling up time on TV talk shows. There are important psychological differences between the serial sex-murderer and the spree killer (whose emotional state is much closer to that of the Mass Murderer). Identifying Cunanan as a spree killer made it possible to predict, if not his next move, then at least his final one – for the essential fact about spree murder is that it is, ultimately, a form of suicide.
Just five days earlier, Cunanan – who was evidently strapped for cash – pawned a gold coin he had stolen from Lee Miglin. To complete the transaction, he was required not only to fill out an official form (on which he wrote his actual name and the address of the Normandy Hotel) but also to leave a thumbprint, which he did without hesitation. This was not the behavior of a diabolically cunning killer bent on eluding capture.
The diagnosis of Cunanan as a spree killer whose rampage was likely to climax with his own death – either by his own hand or in a shoot-out with authorities (“suicide by cop,” in law enforcement parlance) was confirmed on Wednesday, July 25. On that afternoon, Fernando Carreira – the seventy-one-year-old caretaker of a double-decker houseboat docked in a marina only forty blocks away from the site of Versace’s murder – entered the vessel and found evidence of an intruder. As he hurried outside to call the police, Carreira heard a single shot.
Within minutes, police had sealed off the area, and heavily armed, specially trained forces surrounded the houseboat. After nearly five tense hours of watching and waiting, they finally fired tear-gas canisters into the house and shouted “Come out! Come out!” The boat remained deadly silent. A few minutes later, at around 9 p.m. SWAT-team members entered the boat.
There, sprawled face up on a bed, they found Cunanan, dressed only in boxer shorts. He had shot himself in the mouth with the .40-caliber handgun that lay on his stomach.
Far from being a master of criminal cunning, moving about with impunity while the world staged a fruitless manhunt, Cunanan had apparently been holing up in two houseboats for more than a week, not even daring to venture outside for food. In the end, knowing there was no escape, he took the route typically followed by spree killers: self-destruction.
An essential fact about spree killers is that they are deeply embittered men, full of barely suppressed rage and resentment, whose lives suddenly fall apart. Sometimes, they are jilted by a lover. At other times, they are fired from a job. Whatever the crisis that sends them plummeting over the edge, they are people for whom life has become an unendurable nightmare – a living horror. Death offers the only escape, and they are determined to go out with a bang. But before they do, they intend to settle scores, to take other people with them – to wreak vengeance on the world by inflicting some of its horror on others.
It’s easy to see how Cunanan could have reached the point where his glitzy but excruciatingly empty existence finally turned unbearable. Sigmund Freud once said that the two requirements for a fulfilling, meaningful life are “Lieben und Arbeiten” – love and work. Cunanan, a person of much promise in his youth, had neither. His relationships appeared to be purely superficial and sexually exploitive, and his primary source of income was the money his sugar daddies were willing to dole out for his affable companionship and kinky favors.
His desperate need to show the world that he was someone was undoubtedly a way of compensating for the opposite realization – that he was nothing more than a costly plaything, a man without any real power or status. When Cunanan was dumped by his final benefactor, the desperate nothingness of his life – no career, no love, no accomplishments – must have been brought home to him with crushing force. At twenty-seven, he wasn’t getting any younger and was even beginning to lose some of the appeal that his high-flying lifestyle depended on.
In short, Cunanan appeared to have reached the end of his tether. When it finally snapped – when, in a frenzy of jealousy or possibly drug-fueled rage, he lost control and murdered Jeff Trail – he knew that his life was effectively over, and he ran rampant, taking some lives for revenge, others simply for convenience.
In the context of Cunanan’s pathology, his targeting of Versace makes perfect sense. Thought published reports indicate that the two men had encountered one another at a post-opera party in San Francisco, it seems unlikely that they had any kind of relationship. Cunanan’s rage against Versace undoubtedly stemmed from symbolic, not personal, motives. To Cunanan, Versace would have embodied everything Cunanan so desperately coveted and knew he would never attain – glamour and worldwide celebrity. (It is also possible that the fifty-year-old Versace represented, in Cunanan’s unconscious, all the rich older gay men who had used him in their lives.)
In his unleashed rage and insane resentment, Cunanan would get his revenge on the world, and also prove, once and for all, that he was someone special – a person to be reckoned with, a man with the ultimate power: the power of life and death over another. He would finally get his picture on the covers of national magazines and fulfill the destiny his prep school classmates had foreseen: as the fellow student “Most Likely Not to Be Forgotten.”
There is one final factor to be considered: the issue of Cunanan’s homosexuality. Clearly, this is a sensitive subject, particularly for many members of the gay community, who had justifiable fears that Cunanan would be received in light of negative gay stereotypes. For the most part, Cunanan’s sexual orientation has absolutely no bearing on the case. To be sure, the glamorous world of wealthy “A-List” gays was the milieu he frequently moved in and that Versace so glitteringly epitomized. But homosexuality per se clearly had nothing to do with his psychopathology. What drove Cunanan to murder appears to have been some highly combustible mix of rage, resentment, and his terrible sense of failure and powerlessness – in short, the same essential ingredients that have fueled the rampages of notorious heterosexual spree killers, like Charles Starkweather and Paul John Knowles.
If Cunanan’s gay life-style has any bearing at all, it may have more to do with the cultural fascination he exerted. People have always found something deeply enthralling about sensational killers. They turn all of us into children again, instilling a kind of deliciously exciting terror at the notion that a big, scary monster is somewhere on the loose.
But not every psycho killer becomes the object of a national obsession. The ones who do – Charles Manson, for example, or Ted Bundy – often achieve that status because they reflect certain characteristics of their time. In our own age of celebrity obsession, trendy transvestitism, and bisexual chic, Cunanan – the gender-bending, celebrity-stalking killer – served as a deeply compelling reflection of certain currents running though our country, a dark mirror of our cultural soul.