Tragic Details About Gianni Versace's Murder

Versace might be a globally recognized name today, but that wasn't always the case — and the rise of Gianni Versace's fashion house was historic. According to Biography, Gianni Versace started the brand in 1978, and by 1997, his fashion empire was worth $807 million.

But 1997 was also the year he was in the headlines for a reason that rocked not just the fashion world, but the entire world: his early morning, very public assassination.

It was July 15 when Versace left his Miami Beach home, went for a walk, greeted his neighbors, picked up five magazines, and strolled back. He was headed through his front gates when someone walked up from behind and shot him — twice, at point-blank range — then walked away. Versace was pronounced dead at a nearby trauma center, and even as thoughts, prayers, and shock poured from people around the world, there was one massive question: Who would do such a thing?

It wasn't long before the killer was identified as 27-year-old Andrew Cunanan. Before killing Versace on the steps of his home, Cunanan had already left a bloody trail across the U.S. and gotten the attention of the FBI. His story would come to an end in Miami, too, when — cornered on a houseboat — he died by suicide. He would leave behind no explanation as to why he had targeted and killed one of the world's most famous fashion designers. But as more of the story unfolded, the full tragedy became public.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

There were signs Andrew Cunanan was unstable before the killing started

A few months after Gianni Versace's death, Vanity Fair did a deep dive into the life of his killer, Andrew Cunanan. Reporters found a well-read, highly intelligent man who relied heavily on older men to fund his desire for a wildly extravagant lifestyle. He was also described as "a chronic liar and consumer of status." The investigation turned up acquaintances who said they had known he was deeply troubled.

John Semerau was an old friend who happened to run into Cunanan not long before his murder spree kicked off on April 27, 1997. Semerau recalled getting into an argument with Cunanan that quickly escalated: "He grabbed me around the neck so hard he was choking me by his grip. ... Something had snapped in him. Now I realize the guy was hunting — he was getting the thrill of the hunt, the thrill of the kill. I saw it in his eyes. I saw it in his body. He had stepped over the edge."

Cunanan, Vanity Fair reported, was surrounded by stories that made him seem larger-than-life, and that included name-dropping Versace and boasting about a connection with San Francisco social elite Harry de Wildt. De Wildt denied he'd ever met Cunanan, but was approached by the FBI with a warning: Cunanan was the sort who reveled in popularity, and de Wildt was told that — given his obsession — he could easily become a target.

Gianni Versace repeatedly refused security

In today's world, it might seem like a given that someone as famous as Gianni Versace would be surrounded by security. But back in 1997, that wasn't the case for everyone — and it certainly wasn't the case for Versace. According to a report from the Associated Press (via Deseret News), Versace's murder prompted scores of celebrities to reach out to private security companies as they rethought the level of protection they were surrounded by — and the threats that were very clearly out there.

Versace had become a warning, a worst-case scenario. At the time he was killed, he was alone, and according to Versace spokesman Markus Ebner, that wasn't unusual. "Versace disliked security. He didn't like having someone standing over him. He thought security isolated him from people."

Those who were closest to him didn't necessarily agree with him. According to what his longtime partner, Antonio D'Amico, told People, his family tried to get Versace to rethink his stance on hiring security and employing bodyguards. Still, Versace refused. "We never felt in danger," D'Amico said. "He didn't want to draw more attention to himself than necessary with all the bodyguards." Would security have saved his life? It's impossible to tell, but it's also worth noting just how far his dislike of security went: The cameras in his home were said to have been off.

Andrew Cunanan's name was already known to authorities

By the time Andrew Cunanan walked up to Gianni Versace, he had already been connected to four different murders. According to Time, those were the deaths of Jeffrey Trail and David Madson in Minnesota, Chicago real estate developer Lee Miglin, and then — in New Jersey — a cemetery caretaker named William Reese. As Cunanan's former boyfriend, Madson had the strongest connection to him. Although the motive for killing Trail has never been established, Cunanan considered him to be his best friend, according to Vanity Fair. Miglin, who reportedly never met Cunanan, was targeted for unknown reasons, while Reese was likely killed for his vehicle.

Trail was killed in April of 1997, and not only was it Cunanan's first kill, but Cunanan made a massive mistake that immediately gave law enforcement his name. Trail's body was discovered in Madson's apartment, says CBS (Madson's remains were later recovered from the nearby East Rush Lake). Along with Trail's body, officers also recovered a duffel bag that had Cunanan's name on it. Madson's and Trail's deaths were immediately connected, and law enforcement not only knew who they were looking for, but also what Cunanan was driving — Madson's red Jeep.

There was no shortage of people looking for Cunanan: He crossed state lines, and the sheer brutality of the murders earned him a place on the FBI's Top 10 Most Wanted List.

There was a series of near misses where Cunanan could have been apprehended

Eerily, there was a series of near-misses when Andrew Cunanan could have been arrested before he had the chance to kill Gianni Versace. The first happened in Illinois, when Cunanan traded Madson's car for the green Lexus belonging to victim Lee Miglin. According to the Los Angeles Times, Cunanan had been on the run for days before he realized he was being tracked by law enforcement. It's suspected he heard a report on the news placing his location in the Philadelphia area, which is when he ripped out the phone and ditched the vehicle for a truck stolen from the next victim, William Reese.

Next, Cunanan was in Miami for a while before Versace was killed, and he was recognized at a sandwich shop called Miami Sub. Employees called the police, who arrived after he'd left. He was also a regular at Cozzoli's Pizza, where employees noticed he'd cut his hair. 

And finally, the most shocking miss. According to The New York Times, Cunanan pawned a coin at a Miami Beach pawnshop. Both he and the shop owners followed procedure, which meant checking identification and submitting reports to law enforcement. In this case, those reports contained Cunanan's real name, the hotel where he was staying, and even his room number. The forms were submitted to the local police department five days before Versace's murder, where they promptly disappeared into a backlog of similar forms.

Versace's body was discovered by his longtime partner, who was devastated

At the time of his death, Gianni Versace had been living with his longtime partner, Antonio D'Amico. In 1982, Versace hired D'Amico to help make some of his designs a reality, according to The Telegraph. Ten years later, the couple moved to the Miami home that would become renowned for its lavish parties and — just five years after that — as a crime scene.

D'Amico was inside the house when he heard the gunshots, and it's understandable that even decades later, he was hesitant to speak about the moment he discovered his partner's lifeless body. He did, however, speak to The Guardian about the release of "American Crime Story," to make it clear not everything portrayed in the movie was rooted in reality.

"I felt as if my blood had turned to ice," he said, recalling the shooting. "I saw Gianni lying on the steps, with blood around him. At that point, everything went dark. I was pulled away, I didn't see any more." D'Amico has said, too, that he struggled in the aftermath of Versace's death, spiraling into a deep depression. He never reached out to a therapist for help — he knew exactly what was wrong, and nothing could change what had happened. "I was in a nightmare, I felt nothing and gave no importance to anything ... because it felt false to have expectations of life."

Versace's niece and nephew found out about his death on the news

Versace was a family-owned operation from the beginning, says Insider. As Gianni built his business, his sister Donatella and brother Santo worked alongside him. Eventually, the family grew to include their children, and when Gianni was killed, the bulk of Versace's money passed to Donatella, Santo, and Donatella's daughter, Allegra.

In 2017, The Guardian sat down with Donatella, who stepped up to run and grow the business in her brother's absence. She revealed some heartbreaking details, including her own struggle with coming to terms with the terrible events of the hot July day. "My brother was the king, and my whole world had crashed around me," she recalled. "For the first five years, I was lost. I made a lot of mistakes." And then, she'd had an epiphany: "I had been listening to everyone else, and then I realized, who was the person my brother listened to? Me."

Donatella also recounted the moment she heard her brother had been killed. She heard the news, she said, and knew her children were watching television in another room. She ran to them, but they had already seen it. "I wasn't quick enough, and they were watching their uncle covered in blood, and they were asking me why. ... People thought I wasn't a warm person, but I was just trying to keep myself together."

It's still not known why Versace was targeted and killed

The investigation into Gianni Versace's murder ended in December of 1997, and according to the Los Angeles Times, it left one major question still unanswered: Why did Andrew Cunanan kill Gianni Versace?

Miami Beach police chief Richard Barreto explained: "It might have been a robbery. It could have been Andrew Cunanan seeking the exposure of gunning down a person of this stature. It could have been revenge. We would all like to know, especially in a high-profile case like this. Unfortunately, the real answer to that went down with the ship, so to speak."

Investigators hadn't even been able to figure out whether or not Cunanan and Versace had ever met, saying that although there were rumors, nothing could be confirmed. Some of those rumors, in fact, seemed to fall through, including one story told to Vanity Fair by an acquaintance of Cunanan's. He claimed that he had seen Cunanan in a limo with Versace and a man named Harry de Wildt. De Wildt has since denied the event ever took place. Years have passed since Versace's death, and no motive has ever been uncovered. Harper's Bazaar wrote that the theories — mental illness, a breakdown in Cunanan's social life, or a simple desire to be famous — are still only theories.

Everyone featured condemned Ryan Murphy's dramatization

When TV producer Ryan Murphy announced the premiere of "American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace," not everyone was thrilled. In fact, most of the key players in real life came forward to condemn this depiction of Versace's murder — including the Versace family. They issued an official statement to Vanity Fair saying, in part: "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."

Several of the film's stars — including Penelope Cruz — said they had reached out and spoken with the person they portray, but it didn't end there. Ryan Murphy later issued a counter-statement saying (via Entertainment Weekly) that contrary to the Versace family's insistence the show was fiction, he stood by the truthfulness of the script and the world it was based on, including a book by Maureen Orth.

Versace's longtime partner, Antonio D'Amico, spoke with People and backed up the family's claims that it told a story that didn't really happen. He picked apart a series of details — including some of the most intimate claims made about their relationship — saying, "I feel ... that my character ... is a misrepresentation of myself and what our relationship was like."

Rumors that Versace's death was a mob hit have gone full circle

At the crime scene, there was one small detail that kicked off a slew of rumors. Alongside Versace's body was something tiny with a potentially huge meaning. A dead bird, which Miami Beach police officer Carlos Noriega explained was often left at the scene of a hit carried out in connection with the Mafia, he told 48 Hours.

Although it was quickly discovered that the bird had been just an unfortunate casualty caused by a splintering bullet, it was made into something much more. According to Town & Country, it was later discovered that Andrew Cunanan's father had been keeping the rumor alive by continuing to point the finger at the mob instead of his son.

Interestingly, it's a rumor that hasn't died — in fact, precisely the opposite has happened. In 2010, a book written by a former 'Ndrangheta member claimed that Versace's murder had been ordered by and carried out on behalf of the Calabrian Mafia. Why? Giuseppe Di Bella claimed that Versace had been one in a network of people who were laundering money for the mob. The Telegraph reports the claim went over about as well as could be expected, with the Versace family denouncing the allegations and promising that they would take every step necessary to protect the late Gianni Versace's legacy.

Cunanan's suicide meant there would be no justice and no answers

Andrew Cunanan died by suicide on a Miami houseboat the day after Gianni Versace's funeral. According to The New York Times, he had been trying to get a fake passport that would allow him to get out of the country but that, of course, didn't happen. Although Cunanan's suicide brought an end to a manhunt that had been going on for months and spanned the entire nation, it also left behind questions — like that of motive — that would never be answered.

And, as The Washington Post quickly pointed out, it also meant he would never be put on trial for the killings and would only ever be known, technically, as an "'alleged' serial killer."

It turns out that bringing the investigation to an end isn't quite the same as closure. When 48 Hours spoke with Michael Williams, a friend of early victim Jeffrey Trail, he was honest about it not being the outcome he'd wanted. He explained: "I didn't want him to do anything but go to jail and rot."

More bodies were found in Versace's mansion ... 24 years later

According to Vogue, there are three homes that are the most frequently photographed homes in the country, and third on the list is still Versace's mansion. By the time Ryan Murphy went to film "American Crime Story" there, much of the furniture had been sold, but the building itself was still strikingly similar to Versace's vision. Given the high profile of the house as the site of one of the most shocking murders of the decade, it's worth talking about what happened to it, especially because it's had some additions to a grisly history.

After Versace's death, the house was bought and converted into a members-only club that soon went bankrupt. From there, it was auctioned off and converted again to a hotel called The Villa Casa Casuarina. The day before the 24th anniversary of Versace's death, the hotel was in the headlines.

According to NBC Miami, two men were discovered in one of the hotel's suites. An investigation ruled that they had died in a double suicide, and while there was no immediate statement made on a connection between those 2021 deaths and the murder of Gianni Versace, the coincidence was not overlooked.