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Versace Murder Investigation Ends Without a Motive

Crime: Miami Beach authorities close exhaustive probe. They conclude that Andrew Cunanan acted alone in slaying.

December 31, 1997|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Five months after fashion designer Gianni Versace was murdered on the steps of his oceanfront mansion, police on Tuesday closed their investigation into the sensational crime--concluding that San Diego hustler Andrew Cunanan was the killer and that he had acted alone.

The 27-year-old Cunanan, a suspect in four other killings, took his own life with the same pistol he had used to slay Versace after hiding out for 10 days in a houseboat following the July 15 slaying.

But despite what Police Chief Richard Barreto described as "the largest, most extensive investigation ever conducted by Miami Beach police"--reflected in more than 700 pages of reports, dozens of photographs, 17 tape recordings and 13 videotapes made public--the essential mystery surrounding the murder endures.

Why Versace?

"What we cannot establish is motive," Barreto said. "It might have been a robbery. It could have been Andrew Cunanan seeking the exposure of gunning down a person of this stature. It could have been revenge.

"We would all like to know, especially in a high-profile case like this. Unfortunately, the real answer to that went down with the ship, so to speak."

The brazen daylight murder of the 50-year-old Versace as he returned to his home after an early morning walk made worldwide headlines and touched off an intense manhunt that almost immediately focused on Cunanan, a suspected serial killer well known in San Diego's gay community.

The account of what occurred immediately after the murder indicates that Cunanan ignored the shouts of witnesses and calmly walked away after shooting Versace in the head at close range. But a coincidental traffic accident in front of the parking garage where Cunanan had parked a stolen pickup truck may have kept him from fleeing South Florida.

Police had responded to a report of a crash minutes before the shooting. "In his panicked state, I'm sure he thought that perhaps they [police officers] were there as a result of the shooting," Barreto said. "If that hadn't happened, I think he would have gotten into the truck, gotten away and probably killed again."

Officials said Cunanan left San Diego last April for Minneapolis, where that same month he apparently began a cross-country killing spree by bludgeoning Jeffrey Trail, an acquaintance. Days later, he is believed to have fatally shot a former lover, David Madson.

From there, Cunanan drove to Chicago, where authorities say he stabbed wealthy businessman Lee Miglin, stole his 1994 Lexus and headed east. On May 9, Cunanan is believed to have killed cemetery caretaker William Reese before stealing his pickup truck for the drive to Miami Beach.

Reese's truck was found in a city parking lot just two blocks from Versace's home. Inside were Cunanan's passport and receipts that indicated he had been staying in a rundown Miami Beach hotel.

In the aftermath of the Versace slaying, police checked out several reports that Cunanan may have known his victim. But Barreto said there were no proven links between the two. "Two reported connections were more than four years old," he said, and were based on "brief encounters that could not be corroborated."

In an interview with police two days after the slaying, Versace's companion, Antonio D'Amico, said he and the designer did hire male prostitutes on occasion, but that he did not recognize Cunanan.

Barreto said there was no evidence that Cunanan was aided by others, and he added there was no proof that the killer had help or information that led him after the murder to hide out in the unoccupied houseboat. The two-story craft moored on the Intracoastal Waterway about four miles north of Versace's home belonged to a German citizen who owns a gay club in Las Vegas.

Although police could find no ties between Cunanan and the houseboat owner, Barreto said: "My gut feeling is that something led him there. To me there are too many coincidental things."

Barreto refused comment on reports that Cunanan may have been infected with the AIDS virus. Reports from San Diego suggested that a positive AIDS test may have touched off the string of killings that propelled Cunanan to the top of the FBI's most-wanted list.

Police said the only materials related to the case not made public Tuesday were autopsy photos of Versace and Cunanan. Donatella and Santo Versace, the designer's sister and brother, filed suit Tuesday seeking an injunction barring release of the photos. Cunanan's relatives have also requested that the photos not be released.

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

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