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The Killing of Designer Gianni Versace Outside his Home by a Young Sociopath

E.L. Hamilton
Fashion designer Gianni Versace poses on the stairs in his home in 1990, next to a photo montage of himself. (Photo by © Stephanie Maze/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Fashion designer Gianni Versace was gunned down outside his ornate villa in the South Beach neighborhood of Miami Beach just over 20 years ago. That it happened in broad daylight in this tiny community shocked the fashion world and the glitterati whom he counted as friends.

Some speculated it was a Mob hit, before an FBI Most Wanted serial killer became the prime suspect. What made a charming young conman turn into a brutal killer who targeted the iconic designer? A new series that revisits, in telling detail, the events leading up to Versace’s murder is set to air on FX. But the designer’s family objects to American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, calling it “a work of fiction.”

In 1997, Gianni Versace, then 50, headed up one of the most famous fashion brands in the world. The jet setter was friendly with much of his clientele, which included Princess Diana, Madonna, Elton John, and models Naomi Campbell and Carla Bruni. He and his partner of 15 years, Antonio D’Amico, were fixtures on the international party scene.

They had returned to Versace’s Miami Beach mansion just days after showing his most recent collection in Paris. Usually, he would send an assistant out to buy coffee and newspapers, but on July 15, perhaps wanting some rejuvenating fresh air and Florida sunshine, he decided to stroll down to the corner café himself. Upon his return, while Versace was opening his front gate, a young white male wearing a gray T-shirt, black shorts, and white hat, according to witnesses, walked up to the designer and shot him twice in the head, point-blank.

Inside the manor, Versace’s partner D’Amico heard the shots. “My heart just stopped to beat,” he told Dateline in April 2017. “So I ran out and then I saw Gianni laying down on the stairs in blood.”

Versace mansion. In 1997 the world gasped as Gianni Versace was shot to death on the doorstep of his Miami South Beach mansion in Miami, USA.

Versace mansion. In 1997 the world gasped as Gianni Versace was shot to death on the doorstep of his Miami South Beach mansion in Miami, USA.

Early speculation circulated that Versace had been the victim of a Mafia-style execution. The chief of Miami Beach police, Richard Barreto, said, “I believe that he was targeted,” according to a July 17, 1997 report in the Guardian, but he refused to confirm a rumor that a contract had been put out on Versace’s life.

Versace’s friends and colleagues responded with shock. “My reaction is one of revolt against such an unnatural and violent death, and one of profound grief,” designer Giorgio Armani said at the time. Versace’s friend Elton John, who had been expecting to connect with Versace on an upcoming vacation, said, “We were so very close that it’s like a large part of my life has died with him. I’m in deep shock at the news.”

Gianni Versace

Donatella and Gianni Versace wax figures.

Versace’s brother, Santo, and sister, Donatella, flew in from Italy right away. Donatella would end up taking over the brand. “When my brother was murdered, I had the eyes of the whole world on me and 99 percent of them thought I wasn’t going to make it,” she told the Guardian in September. “And maybe I thought the same, at first. My brother was the king, and my whole world had crashed around me.”

Hotel security cameras had caught the shooting, and an eyewitness had followed the shooter to a nearby garage, where police soon found the clothing he had been wearing. They also located a red pickup truck reported stolen from New Jersey, in which the police found the killer’s ID and had a name for their suspect: Andrew Cunanan. Like many sociopaths, Cunanan left the identification intentionally—he wanted to become as famous as his victim.

Andrew Cunanan’s FBI photos when he was placed on the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.

Andrew Cunanan’s FBI photos when he was placed on the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.

Cunanan, 27 years old, was already on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted list. It turned out that Versace was the fifth murder in Cunanan’s cross-country killing spree, and police were on the hunt for him.

Raised in California, Andrew Cunanan was known as a charming, witty, and seemingly intelligent Catholic altar boy who came out as gay in high school. He had a taste for the high life, craved the lifestyle of the rich and famous, and after he dropped out of college, he cultivated sugar daddies, according to Maureen Orth’s 1997 Vanity Fair story, which became the book on which the new series is based. He may have sold drugs. “He liked S&M,” his former roommate Erik Greenman told Vanity Fair’s Orth. “He was more the tying-up-and-whips type—just the degradation, not the asphyxiation.”

Cunanan’s first two victims were handsome young men with whom he was intimate—one he called his “best friend”; the other was a former boyfriend. The third was a much older, wealthy real estate agent, whom Cunanan tortured before killing. The fourth was a victim of circumstance—Cunanan shot a born-again Christian caretaker of a New Jersey cemetery for his red 1995 Ford truck that the killer used to drive to Florida.

Cunanan was obsessed with Versace, and even claimed to know him. He moved to a motel four miles from the designer’s Miami mansion where he lived for two months before the murder.

After Versace’s murder, it took eight days to find Cunanan, and by then, he was dead. Cunanan had holed up on a houseboat docked at a vacant home of a businessman, presumably to hide out. A caretaker who had stopped by to check on the property heard gunshots and called the police. Since Cunanan was considered armed and dangerous, a SWAT team arrived and threw a tear-gas canister on the boat before boarding the boat and finding him dead of a gunshot wound to the face, an apparent suicide.

Versace Store on Via Monte Napoleone, Milan.

Versace Store on Via Monte Napoleone, Milan.

In the Ryan Murphy-directed American Crime Story, Edgar Ramirez stars as Versace, and Darren Criss plays Andrew Cunanan. Penelope Cruz stars as sister Donatella, and Ricky Martin as Versace’s long-time partner, Antonio D’Amico.

“The Versace family has neither authorized nor had any involvement whatsoever in the forthcoming TV series about the death of Mr. Gianni Versace,” the family said via the fashion house in a statement on January 8. “Since Versace did not authorize the book on which it is partly based nor has it taken part in the writing of the screenplay, this TV series should only be considered as a work of fiction.”

It is not the first time the Versace family has objected to film adaptations of their story. Using similar language, after the release of a 2013 Lifetime original movie, House of Versace, the company issued a statement saying that it “neither authorized nor had any involvement whatsoever in the forthcoming TV movie about Mrs. Versace,” and likewise took issue with the book on which that film was based, 2010’s House of Versace: The Untold Story of Genius, Murder and Survival, by Deborah Ball.

Donatella Versace at the 2010 Time 100.Author: David Shankbone – CC BY 3.0

Donatella Versace at the 2010 Time 100.Author: David Shankbone – CC BY 3.0

Donatella Versace told WWD in November she would not watch the series: “I spoke with Penélope, she is a friend, she said she will treat me with respect—yes, but I don’t know what will be [shown], from a book that says incredible falsehoods.”

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For her part, Cruz hoped Donatella would reconsider, telling Vogue U.K., “I really hope that when she sees the show, she’s going to be happy. I’m sure there are going to be scenes that are hard for her to watch, because it’s a lot about the loss of her brother, which, of course, I have so much respect for. I did it with all my love.”

E.L. Hamilton

E.L. Hamilton is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News