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 an alleged serial killer on the FBI’s most wanted list is the suspect.
The 50-year-old Italian-born 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 another shot as he lay on the pavement. The assailant then left the scene on foot.
Andrew P. 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 people Cunanan is suspected of killing in a 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 said.
Versace was homosexual, but when asked if Cunanan and Versace 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 boyfriend in the Minneapolis area and a Chicago businessman.
Although paramedics were able to keep Versace alive for several minutes after responding to the scene, 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 for other companies in 1972 in Milan. He launched his own label in 1978 and went on to dress the likes of Princess Diana, singers Madonna, Sting and Elton John, actress Demi Moore and models Elizabeth Hurley and Naomi Campbell.
Versace gained fame in the 1980s, staging his fashion shows with blaring rock music, glaring floodlights and mega screens reproducing what was going on on the runway.
Besides women’s and men’s wear, his lines now include children’s clothing, lingerie, beachwear, accessories and perfume. The Versace name also adorns fabrics, linens and chinaware, and he planned to take his empire public next year.
The Princess of Wales 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.
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.
Police announced Cunanan as their chief suspect after tracing the truck to a Pennsville, N.J., man, cemetery caretaker William Reese, and analyzing other pieces of evidence including several articles of 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.