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Fashion Giant Versace Is Slain

Crime: Top designer is gunned down outside his Miami Beach villa. Man from San Diego suspected in 4 other killings is sought.

July 16, 1997|MIKE CLARY and ANNA M. VIRTUE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI BEACH — Gianni Versace, who became a multimillionaire designing clothes for celebrities and ready-to-wear customers alike, was shot to death execution-style Tuesday on the front steps of his villa here and police announced that a serial killer on the FBI's most wanted list is the suspect.

The 50-year-old Italian couturier was returning to his stately Ocean Drive residence from a nearby cafe when, according to witnesses, a young white man dressed in shorts, T-shirt and a white cap, and wearing a backpack, approached and fired a shot into the back of Versace's head at point-blank range, then fired another round as Versace lay on the pavement. The assailant then left the scene on foot.

Andrew Phillip Cunanan, 27, a former San Diego resident, was named the prime suspect in the slaying after police found a red truck Cunanan was believed to have been driving in a nearby parking garage. The truck belonged to one of four men Cunanan is suspected of killing in a murder spree that began in April.

"Cunanan is known to be a male prostitute who services an affluent clientele," said Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Barreto. "Cunanan is well-educated, well-dressed and articulate." He should be considered armed and dangerous, Barreto added.

Versace was homosexual, but when asked if Cunanan and the fashion designer had a relationship, Barreto said, "I have no idea."

Barreto said the motive was not robbery. "I do know it is not a random act of violence," said Barreto. "I believe he was targeted."

In addition to the killing of the truck owner, who was a cemetery caretaker in New Jersey, Cunanan is being sought in the May slaying of a Minneapolis architect, who had once been his lover, and in the killings of another former lover in the Minneapolis area and a Chicago businessman.

Although paramedics were able to keep Versace alive for several minutes, he was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital. "His injury was such that it was not survivable," said neurosurgeon Phillip Villanueva. "He was brain dead."

Born in the southern city of Reggio Calabria, one of the poorest areas in Italy, Versace began designing ready-to-wear clothing for Milan businesses in 1972. He launched his own label in 1978 and went on to dress the likes of Princess Diana, singers Madonna, Sting and Elton John, actresses Demi Moore and Elizabeth Hurley and model Naomi Campbell, among others.

Versace gained fame in the 1980s, staging his fashion shows with blaring rock music, glaring floodlights and giant screens reproducing what was happening on the runway.

Besides women's and men's wear, his lines now include children's apparel, lingerie, beachwear, accessories and perfume. The Versace name also adorns fabrics, linens and chinaware. He had planned to take his empire public next year.

Princess Diana said she was "devastated by the loss of a great and talented man." The designer had paid tribute to the princess by naming a handbag after her--The Lady Di.

A spokesman said John was too upset to make a public statement. Hurley said in a statement: "Gianni was a dear friend of mine and I am going to miss him horribly."

Although his fashions were bright and flashy, Versace himself was not. Friends said he kept a low profile, often entertaining quietly at home.

He also shunned high-tech security and bodyguards. When in town, he often walked to the News Cafe, two blocks away, as he did Tuesday morning, to have espresso and read Italian newspapers. And, as he did on the day he died, he often went alone.

"He was a fearless man," his chef, Charles Podesta, told a local television station. "He never wanted security."

Eddie Bianchi said he was standing outside his skate shop a half-block away when he heard two shots. He said he and his wife ran to the scene.

"I was shocked. I said to my wife, 'This is Gianni Versace,' and she said, 'No, this can't be,' " recalled Bianchi.

Martin Weinstein said he was also nearby when Versace was shot. "I heard the shots. And when I arrived I saw a guy lying on the step in a pool of blood," said Weinstein. "At first I didn't realize who it was."

Police named Cunanan as their chief suspect after tracing the truck ownership to a Pennsville, N.J., man, cemetery caretaker William Reese, and analyzing other evidence, including clothing found next to the truck in a parking garage two blocks away, Barreto said.

FBI agent Paul Philip said Cunanan not only fit the description of the killer as reported by witnesses, but that he had been spotted in West Palm Beach two weeks ago.

Asked how Cunanan operates, Philip said, "He kills people."

Although police have alerted gay and lesbian bars and clubs to watch for Cunanan, Philip said, "Nobody's safe in this.

"Don't think that just because you're not gay that you're not at risk here," he said.

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