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Cunanan Doesn't Fit Serial Killer Mold

Crime: Suspect in deaths of Versace, 4 others defies categorization, investigators' expectations, some say.

July 20, 1997|TONY PERRY and JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With three dead and the FBI involvement in the case increasing, San Diego police searched Cunanan's home, looking for dental charts that might be used to connect Cunanan with bite marks on victims or with the half-eaten food at the Miglins' home.

No dental records, or name of a dentist, could be found, but police did find something more ominous: two videos stashed under Cunanan's bed produced by a West Hollywood firm and showing homosexual bondage and sadomasochism, including one episode in which a man is forced to wear a hood on his head while he is whipped and beaten.

"It looked like a training film for the Miglin incident," said one law enforcement official.

Miglin's green 1994 Lexus was missing, along with $2,000 in cash, some rare coins and upscale clothing. On May 8, authorities told the press that they had tracked the cellular phone in the Lexus to a location in Pennsylvania--a release of information that investigators now deeply regret.

"I know we would have been able to find Cunanan," said an incredulous Schwegman. "Then he found out we knew and the signal stopped."

On May 9, according to a federal indictment, Cunanan committed a murder with no overtones of revenge or rage or psychosexual abnormality, a murder simply to cover the theft of a red 1995 Chevrolet pickup truck owned by cemetery worker William Reese, 45, a Civil War buff who left a wife and 12-year-old son.

Suspect's Trail Grows Cold

Police suspect that Cunanan picked the Finn's Point Cemetery in Pennsville, N.J., because it was isolated and it might be several hours before the theft and murder would be discovered. Reese was killed with a single gunshot to the head, with the same .40-caliber Golden Saber hollow-point shells used to kill Madson and later Versace.

When police recovered Miglin's Lexus at the cemetery, they found a Bank of America check with Cunanan's name imprinted on it, Cunanan's passport, and newspaper clippings about the killing spree.

With four dead, the FBI, needing the public's assistance more than ever, put Cunanan on its most-wanted list. "You newspaper types laugh at that, but it helps keep it in front of the public, and that helps," said one law enforcement officer.

The case was also taken up by the television show "America's Most Wanted." Dozens of tips were phoned in, and Cunanan sightings spread from New York to Washington to New Mexico.

Gay groups redoubled their efforts to post warnings. A ranger at a national park thought he spotted Cunanan and federal agents quickly executed a military-style raid. It proved to be mistaken identity.

As summer wore on, the trail grew cold. The story was "old news" except in the gay press, which speculated whether the first two murders were the product of a love triangle and whether Cunanan might be HIV-positive and thus out for revenge.

Versace Slaying Undermines Theories

FBI analysts seeking to categorize Cunanan, and thus provide a lead on his next move, theorized that he was a "serial" killer, not a "spree" killer. The latter kills in rapid succession; the former can often wait weeks or months before the irresistible urge to kill again strikes.

The murder of Versace, outside his palatial manse in the glamorous South Beach section of this coastal enclave, undermined both the serial and spree definitions.

As pointed out by Edna Buchanan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who rose to acclaim for her accounts of Miami murder, not since Charles Manson has a serial killer targeted a celebrity. Celebrity killers tend to have a fixation on their victims or a desire to earn notoriety in a single burst.

Although Cunanan may have met Versace--at the San Francisco Opera House, a San Francisco gay nightclub, or a party in San Diego--there has been no suggestion that they had anything approaching a relationship, although Cunanan was known for wearing Versace clothing.

Jack Levin, a murder expert and sociologist at Northeastern University in Boston, said Cunanan has been difficult to catch because of his lack of predictability and the fact that he fit none of the accepted patterns that law enforcement depends on.

Abandoned Cars Become a Trademark

The one pattern that Cunanan is suspected of following is distinctly his own: leaving a car near the murder scene. The stolen pickup was found in a parking lot just blocks from Versace's home.

What's more, the pickup (with stolen South Carolina plates) had been parked for weeks, sometimes illegally, outside the Normandy Plaza Hotel in South Beach, which caters to a gay clientele and where clothing is optional. Cunanan, under an alias, had apparently been living there since May, paying $240 a week, in cash.

He was secretive but not afraid to venture out, to allegedly pawn some of Miglin's coins (and sign the ticket under his real name), to buy some grooming aids at a Walgreen's store (he once worked at a Walgreen's in San Diego) and to peruse the wares at a South Beach store stocked with gay videos and sexual paraphernalia.

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