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Versace: 10 years later


  • Slide show | Revisiting Versace's murder
  • By LUISA YANEZ, [email protected]

    VersaceOn the afternoon of July 7, 1997, a young man wearing a slanted baseball cap over his unshaven face walked into a North Beach pawn shop. He was strapped for cash.

    At the counter was Vivian Oliva, a no-nonsense mother of two who worked days at her brother's business, at 71st Street and Collins Avenue. ''I'll give you $190 for it,'' she told him after seeing his 22-karat gold coin.

    Oliva asked for identification; the man produced his U.S. passport and said he was staying at the nearby Normandy Plaza hotel. He took his money and left.

    What Oliva and the rest of South Florida didn't know then was that the man pawning the coin was Andrew Cunanan, 27, a gay gigolo who had been in town for weeks plotting the fifth and final chapter of a murderous cross-country odyssey -- the death of fashion designer Gianni Versace, South Beach's most famous resident.

    For the next nine days, the eyes of the world would picture South Beach not just as a chic playground, but also a city under 24-hour siege, in the grips of a spree killer. Miami Beach would be forever linked to one of America's most notorious crimes.


    The youngest of four children of an upper-middle-class Filipino stockbroker and his Italian-American wife, Andrew Phillip Cunanan had grown up in San Diego and seemed an unlikely mass killer.

    Cunanan's parents, at their son's insistence, sacrificed to send him to the private, preppy and prestigious The Bishop's School in La Jolla. The teen became well-known for two traits, friends later told the FBI: He was flamboyantly gay and a pathological liar, endlessly manicuring his background.

    After graduation, he used his exotic good looks to attract older, wealthy gay men who allowed him a life of leisure, partying, complete with drugs and affairs.

    One love interest was David Madson, 33, an architect from Minneapolis. Coincidentally, another friend, Jeffrey Trail, 28, just out of the Navy, had moved to the same city.

    During a visit to Minneapolis in late April, Cunanan came to suspect that Trail had turned Madson against him. Cunanan snapped and suddenly turned violent. He crushed Trail's head with a claw hammer, authorities said.

    Days later, Madson's body was found in a field. He had apparently witnessed Trail's murder and been killed for it.

    It's unclear why Cunanan became so violent. Criminologists who studied his rampage concluded he was a spree killer -- someone driven to kill by an emotional blow, usually in a sudden spurt of violence. His perceived rejection by Madson and Trail, they say, likely triggered the killings.

    With two victims dead, Cunanan was now on the run in Madson's Jeep -- killing for convenience and with ease.

    His third victim was Lee Miglin, 72, a wealthy Chicago developer. Cunanan tortured him on May 3 and took off with his Lexus and the gold coin he pawned in Miami Beach. His fourth victim was William Reese, 45, a New Jersey cemetery caretaker, whose red pickup he commandeered.

    CunananCunanan rolled into Miami Beach sometime in mid-May and hardly went into hiding. He frequented local gay bars, auditioned to appear in gay porn and hustled for cash. He became a regular at a Miami Subs near the $36-a-night Normandy Plaza hotel at 69th and Collins. His alias: Andrew DeSilva.

    By the day of the murder, Cunanan had skipped out on his hotel and was living out of the stolen pickup truck, which he kept at a city parking lot just two blocks from Casa Casuarina, Versace's palatial beachfront home.

    Versace, 50, had just returned to Miami Beach -- and Cunanan had been waiting, police later determined.

    On July 15, Versace awoke early. Dressed in gray sweat pants and a black T-shirt, he walked two blocks south to the News Café. He ordered a cup of coffee and purchased five magazines. It was sunny, about 8:30 a.m., and few people were on the street.

    Versace, the man who helped bring gaudy glitz and glamour to South Beach, strolled back home.

    Cunanan, lurking in a park across the street, dashed toward Versace, who was fidgeting with keys to the 10-foot ornate wrought iron gate.

    Cunanan moved behind him, right arm outstretched. He fired one shot near Versace's ear, execution-style. He fired a second shot into the fashion mogul's cheek.

    Versace fell. Blood dripped down the rock steps, splattering over Versace's sunglasses and flip-flops, an image repeatedly broadcast and published the world over.

    Cunanan calmly walked away.

    In the chaos, one of Versace's friends gave chase but stopped when Cunanan pointed the .40 caliber Taurus. Cunanan vanished into one of Miami Beach's alleyways.

    Rescue workers arrived and tried to keep Versace alive; they didn't know his spine had been severed.

    Cunanan had planned to jump into his pickup and drive right out of the 13th Street garage. But the sound of a wailing police siren stopped him. Shaken and thinking he was about to be caught, Cunanan stripped off his blood-splattered T-shirt and bolted on foot.

    Turns out the siren was that of a cop car investigating a nearby car accident.

    Cunanan had made a mistake. The bloody shirt and truck left behind would help police learn his true identity and link him to Versace's murder. An eight-day manhunt would soon begin.


    Miami Beach Detective Robert Hernandez, a public information officer at the time, was among the first to arrive at Versace's mansion.

    'There was a patrol officer already there, but he had no idea who the victim was. When I saw him, I said: `Do you know who that is? That's Versace! This is going to be big.' I called the lead PIO at the time, Al Boza, and told him: 'Get ready.' ''

    Indeed, reporters from newspapers, radio, television and the Internet quickly got wind of a sensational story.

    Within hours, the news got juicier. Versace's killer had been identified as Cunanan, a spree killer who only weeks before had been listed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List.

    ''It went from a whodunit to a he-done-it, but now, not only did we have a dead world-famous designer, he had been killed by a serial killer who was on the loose,'' said then City Manager José Garcia-Pedrosa, 61, now president and CEO of the National Parkinson Foundation in Miami.

    ''The story had everything: Violence, sex, suspense . . . And there was a mystery, too. Why did Cunanan kill Versace?'' Garcia-Pedrosa said.

    A sense of panic filled South Florida. Catching Cunanan became an obsession for the FBI, Miami Beach and Miami-Dade Police and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Miami Beach was turned upside down.

    Said then-Mayor Seymour Gelber, now 87: ``The furor created by the Versace murder is something that had never happened on Miami Beach before -- and I've lived here since 1946.''


    The job of finding Cunanan fell to veteran Miami Beach detectives Paul Scrimshaw and Gary Schiaffo.

    They began chasing lead after lead -- most dead ends. ''There were more sightings of Cunanan than Elvis,'' said the Bronx-born Schiaffo, who resembles actor Dennis Farina. ``Everybody was seeing the guy, and we had to chase down every tip.''

    Mansion One bizarre theory was that Versace was killed by the Mafia.

    The reason: Next to Versace's body was a dead pigeon -- a mob calling card.

    Turns out the pigeon succumbed in a freak accident, killed by a bullet that exited Versace's skull and ricocheted off his ornate iron gate -- hitting the bird in the eye, the detectives decided.

    A break came July 23, when Schiaffo heard a call on the police radio that caught his attention: ``Shots fired in a houseboat on 52th Street and Indian Creek.''

    Could it be Cunanan? Schiaffo had a feeling about this one.

    ''Days earlier, a guy who owned a yacht just three blocks away from the houseboat had reported that someone he thought was Cunanan had ransacked his yacht,'' Schiaffo recalled. ``I jumped in my car and headed that way.''

    Schiaffo was the first detective at the houseboat for what would be a 12-hour siege.

    Schiaffo learned a caretaker, Fernando Carreira, had come to the houseboat to check on it when he discovered the locks had been opened. He pushed his way in and saw that someone had been living there. Then a shot rang out.

    Police decided to tear-gas the houseboat, but getting the smoke out took hours. The media was kept at bay and in the dark about the suspect's identity.

    The police wouldn't tell them what had happened for hours.

    Schiaffo and a crime lab technician finally entered and found Cunanan dead on a bed upstairs, just 41 blocks from the Versace mansion. He had shot himself in the mouth, with the gun he used on his victims.

    Schiaffo believes Cunanan offed himself because he thought the caretaker was the police.

    ''I think he thought: This is it. I'll take care of myself or they're gonna riddle my body. The FBI profile said he was very vain and would have preferred to kill himself,'' Schiaffo said.


    In the days after Cunanan's houseboat suicide, the media pummeled Miami Beach police and other law enforcement agencies for missteps.

    One missed opportunity, the media later learned, was that a clerk at a Miami Subs in Miami Beach -- only days before Versace's murder -- thought he had seen Cunanan and reported it to police. The clerk, who had watched the television program America's Most Wanted, called 911. But police arrived at the sub shop too late.

    Later, the media discovered that the pawn shop employee Oliva, as required by law, had sent Miami Beach police the paperwork of the transaction with Cunanan. It sat on a desk unnoticed, rich in leads to Versace's killer. The embarrassment prompted Miami Beach police to go to a computerized pawn shop detail system to track such information.

    Today, Schiaffo is retired from the force and works as an insurance fraud investigator for the state.

    Scrimshaw saw his career and his relationship with the department sour. He retired five months after the murder. He died of cancer last year at age 60.

    His widow, Lynn Scrimshaw, says the case proved a curse for her husband.

    ''It cost my husband his whole life,'' she said. ``He lost a job that he loved and did very well. The case changed him.''

    Oliva, 55 who no longer works at the pawn shop, said she still can't believe she came face-to-face with Cunanan.

    ''He was as sweet as a piece of cake,'' she said. ``I wouldn't have guessed in a million years that the man who walked in that day was a killer.''

    In Italy, the city of Milán and the Versace family have planned several events this week to mark the 10th anniversary of Versace's death.

    Versace's sister, Donatella, who continues to run the fashion house, said in a statement that it is ``an emotionally difficult time.''

    As for Versace's mansion at 11th and Ocean Drive, it is now a high-priced bed-and-breakfast -- and the steps leading to it are a macabre mecca for tourists.

    Gianni Versace portrait by MARICE COHN BAND / Miami Herald Staff


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    Cunanan was raised by an Italian mother. His culture is Italian. He mingles with Italian gay men and friend. No one saw him shot Versace but because the Italians move in mafia like communities , Versace was probably a hit and they blamed it to a poor guy who has a non-Italian Name.

    This is another reason why Italians does not have a place in politics. THey are inherently evil.

    Paul Scrimshaw was a wonderful man, very dedicated to his career. I didn't know Paul while he was with the Miami Dade police department, I came to know him in 2000 and thought he was a very smart, very honest and very loyal man. It's a shame that this case tore him up inside like it did.

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