JONATHAN MAYO gives a minute-by-minute account of Versace's death

JONATHAN MAYO gives a minute-by-minute account of Versace's death

July 24, 2022

The gun was so close to his neck it left gunpowder marks on his skin: Fashion mogul Gianni Versace was shot dead by a fixated drifter 25 years ago this month. JONATHAN MAYO gives a gripping minute-by-minute account of a killing that shocked the world

  • Gianni Versace was the most famous and flamboyant fashion designer in 1997
  • Born in Reggio Calabria, he became an apprentice in his mother’s business 
  • He opened his first boutique and went on to create a multi-million-pound brand
  • In April 1997, a prostitute named Andrew Cunanan embarked on a killing spree

Gianni Versace, 50, was the most famous and flamboyant fashion designer in the world in 1997. Born in the Italian coastal town of Reggio Calabria in 1946, he became an apprentice in his mother’s dress-making business as a teenager.

By 1978, he was opening his first boutique in Milan and went on to create a multi-million-pound brand that clothed some of the world’s biggest celebrities, including Princess Diana, Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Elton John — and, of course, Liz Hurley in that dress on the red carpet.

In the words of former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, Versace, with the help of his beloved younger sister Donatella and older brother Santo, ‘turned hooker-style into high fashion’ while introducing a new level of luxury bling, heavily influenced by his passion for Ancient Greece, with interior designs and furnishings.

Then in April 1997, a 27-year-old male prostitute named Andrew Cunanan embarked on a killing spree . . .

Sunday, April 27, 1997

Ever since his teenage years in California, Andrew Cunanan has lived a hedonistic life. A fashion obsessive, he hankered after the wealthy lifestyle of many of his schoolmates — among whom he was known for his tall stories and lies — in a wealthy suburb of San Diego. By his mid-20s he has dealt drugs, sold stolen goods, and worked as a prostitute and escort.

Friends believed Cunanan had the potential for violence. He would often talk about going on a ‘five-state killing spree’.

Recently, Cunanan has become increasingly dependent on crack cocaine and his behaviour erratic. Police would later come to believe that he may also have convinced himself that he was HIV positive.

Gianni Versace, 50, was the most famous and flamboyant fashion designer in the world in 1997. Pictured: Gianni with supermodels Carla Bruni and Naomi Campbell at a London fashion show in 1992

Cunanan flies to Minneapolis where he has a row with a 28-year-old friend, Jeff Trail. Later he lures Trail to the apartment of his own former lover, David Madsun. There he grabs a claw hammer from a kitchen drawer and beats Trail to death in front of Madsun. He later shoots Madsun, 33, in the head with Trail’s gun, leaving his body on the shore of Rush Lake, Minnesota.

Saturday, May 3

Cunanan drives 400 miles to Chicago to the home of elderly real estate developer Lee Miglin. He tortures Miglin, binding his hands, feet and head with duct tape, before slashing his throat and stabbing him more than 20 times with pruning shears. Cunanan flees to New York in Miglin’s Lexus. The motive for the murder of Miglin, or if the two men knew each other, has never been established.

Friday, May 9

Cunanan is desperate to dump the Lexus because he knows it will link him to Lee Miglin, so he drives to New Jersey in search of a new vehicle. He shoots 45-year-old cemetery caretaker William Reese — a random victim — and steals his red pick-up truck.

Cunanan then drives 1,250 miles to Miami, Florida, where he knows Gianni Versace has a house. Cunanan has decided the famous designer is to be his next victim.

The police have never able to establish a link between the two men, but Cunanan’s friends say that they met in a gay bar in San Francisco in 1990, where they had a brief conversation. Cunanan’s friend Anthony Dabiere said that he came home that night ‘high as a kite on his weekend with Gianni Versace, talking about all the things they did together, all the lavish treatment he’d received’. It was all fabrication and the start of a fatal obsession.

Monday, May 12

Cunanan arrives in South Beach, Miami, and checks into a cheap hotel, the Normandy Plaza, giving the false name Kurt De Mars. As the days pass the manager notices that Cunanan, who has always been something of a chameleon, constantly changes his appearance by wearing a variety of wigs.

Cunanan spends his time reading and watching pornography while waiting for Versace to arrive at his home in South Beach.

Princess Diana comforts pop star Elton John as he weeps openly at a memorial mass for Italian designer Gianni Versace in Milan in July 22, 1997

Thursday, July 10

Gianni Versace lands in Miami for a fortnight’s holiday with his partner of 15 years, designer and model Antonio D’Amico.

Versace had been in New York having talks with the investment management company Morgan Stanley about floating his company on the Stock Exchange.

The couple arrive at Casa Casuarina, his 35-room mansion in South Beach. Gianni bought the rundown house in 1992 and has turned it into an Italian palace with incredible landscaped gardens and fountains. His friend Elton John once said: ‘Gianni was so extravagant that by comparison I looked like the embodiment of frugal living and self-sacrifice.’

Friday, July 11

The FBI have now connected the killings of Jeff Trail, David Madsun, Lee Miglin and William Reese to Cunanan and have placed him on their Most Wanted list.

They are offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to his capture.

Cunanan has run out of money so checked out of the Normandy Plaza without paying his bill and has been living in the stolen red pick-up truck parked in a garage close to Casa Casuarina.

At a South Beach fast-food restaurant, waiter Kenneth Benjamin recognises Cunanan from his mug shot on the TV show America’s Most Wanted and calls the police. Kenneth is put on hold for so long that by the time the police arrive Cunanan has gone.

When the police check the CCTV, the view of the suspect is blocked by Kenny on the phone. Later that night Cunanan goes to Twist, a popular gay club in Miami.

On the dance floor, a young man asks him: ‘What do you do?’ Cunanan replies: ‘I’m a serial killer!’ and laughs.

Tuesday, July 15

3.30am: Gianni is unable to sleep and goes downstairs to phone his Milan office to speak to his friend and colleague Franco Lussana about plans for Versace’s new collection.

Casa Casuarina, former home of fashion designer Gianni Versace, ca. 1980-1997, Miami, Florida, USA

Then he calls his 42-year-old sister Donatella at the Hotel de la Ville in Rome where she is rehearsing models for an Italian TV show called Donna Sotto Le Stelle (Woman Under The Stars), which is honouring his designs in a live broadcast the next day.

He asks her so many questions about the show that Donatella says angrily: ‘Gianni, you can’t help me from there!’ and hangs up. After about 20 minutes of further phone calls, he goes back to bed.

Gianni has much on his mind — and not just business. He has fallen out with one of his most famous clients, Diana, Princess of Wales. He had used photos of Diana and her sons William and Harry in a book called Rock And Royalty, in aid of Elton John’s AIDS Foundation.

The book also included pictures of semi-nude male models. Diana was horrified and refused to write the foreword. Elton wrote to her saying bluntly how much money she had cost his charity.

Diana wrote a formal and angry letter in reply addressed to: ‘Dear Mr John . . .’

Diana is now on holiday with Dodi Al Fayed on a yacht belonging to his father, the disgraced Harrods’ tycoon Mohamed Al Fayed, in the Mediterranean, with pictures and details of the controversial ‘romantic’ break filling newspapers and magazines across the world.

8.15am: Leaving his partner Antonio asleep, Gianni dresses in a black T-shirt, grey and white check shorts and his own-label black sandals. He picks up the large key to the gates of Casa Casuarina and leaves for his regular morning stroll along Ocean Drive. From across the street, Andrew Cunanan watches him, a baseball cap covering his face.

In April 1997, a 27-year-old male prostitute named Andrew Cunanan embarked on a killing spree . . .

8.30am: Gianni walks into a store called the News Cafe and buys a coffee and some newspapers and magazines, including the New Yorker and Vogue.

He loves having magazines scattered around his house — he uses them as inspiration and covers them with Post-It notes full of ideas.

Back at Casa Casuarina, Gianni’s neighbour and friend Lazaro Quinana arrives to play tennis with Antonio, who is having coffee on the veranda.

8.45am: Gianni returns home and reaches the steps of his mansion. Across the street, Andrew Cunanan stands up and pulls out the .40 calibre pistol he stole from his first victim, Jeff Trail.

Gianni smiles at passer-by Mersiha Colakovic, an Italian and part-time resident of South Beach, and gets out the key to open the gates.

Cunanan walks behind Gianni, stretches his arm out straight and shoots Gianni on the left side of his neck. He is so close the gunpowder marks Gianni’s skin. The bullet instantly severs his spinal cord, ricochets off the metal gate and then, in a bizarre twist, kills a pigeon on the pavement.

A dead bird is a Mafia symbol, so this later leads to false speculation that there was Mob involvement in the murder.

Gianni falls to the ground and Cunanan fires again, this time into his face, the bullet lodging in his skull. Mersiha Colakovic, less than 10ft away and the only witness, watches stunned as the killer puts his weapon in a backpack and calmly walks away.

‘Cunanan continued down the street as if nothing had happened,’ she said. (Initially, Ms Colakovic requested an alias when giving her police statement because, it was reported, she feared it had been a Mafia hit.)

Blood is now running down the steps of the mansion.

Born in the Italian coastal town of Reggio Calabria in 1946, he became an apprentice in his mother’s dress-making business as a teenager (pictured here with his sister Donatella)

8.46am: Lazaro Quinana runs out of the gates and finds Gianni lying face down. He is quicky joined by Versace’s partner, Antonio, who said later: ‘At that point, everything went dark. I was pulled away, I didn’t see any more.’

Lazaro checks Gianni’s pulse and then shouts: ‘Who did this? Who did this?’ Mersiha Colakovic points towards Cunanan who is now about a block away.

Antonio yells: ‘Laz! Go get him!’ Lazaro sprints down the street shouting: ‘You bastard! Stop!’ Cunanan starts to run and ducks into an alley, and Lazaro follows, but when Cunanan stops and points the gun at him, he backs off.

8.48am: One of the staff at Casa Casuarina calls 911: ‘A man’s been shot. It’s Gianni Versace. We just heard gun shots and we went outside. He’s on the steps of the house. Who would have done something like that?’

Cunanan reaches the red pick-up truck where he’s been sleeping. He changes out of his shorts and T-shirt and puts on fresh clothes. Cunanan’s plan had been to flee in the truck, but he sees a police car and so decides to make his getaway on foot.

8.55am: An ambulance arrives at Casa Casuarina and although paramedics can find no vital signs, they fix a brace around Gianni Versace’s neck and attempt CPR.

The police stop Antonio getting into the ambulance because they need him to give them a description of the gunman. Gianni is taken to the Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. A single black Versace sandal is left on the bloody steps.

9.15am: In Milan, Gianni’s older brother Santo gets a call from an assistant who’s heard that the designer has been shot. Santo immediately tells Donatella: ‘A lunatic has shot Gianni, but don’t worry he’s already on his way to hospital and they’ll take care of him.’ Santo starts to work out how he can get Gianni repatriated to a hospital in Italy.

By 1978, he was opening his first boutique in Milan and went on to create a multi-million-pound brand that clothed some of the world’s biggest celebrities. Pictured in 1985

9.21am: The doctors at Jackson Memorial Hospital pronounce Gianni Versace dead. Antonio is so distraught he has to be given a sedative. Miami Police have found the red pick-up truck and the pile of Cunanan’s clothes still wet with sweat.

Inside the vehicle are Cunanan’s passport, bullets and a pawnshop ticket for a gold coin stolen from his third victim, Lee Miglin’s house.

9.30am: Donatella Versace calls the Miami hospital and is told her brother is dead. She screams so loudly the models outside the Hotel de la Ville can hear her. Donatella faints and Santo helps carry her up to her penthouse suite.

10am: Scores of onlookers are now crowding around the entrance to Casa Casuarina. One of Gianni’s staff is scrubbing the steps clean.

They soon become a makeshift memorial covered with cards and flowers. Meanwhile, hackers are trying to break into the Jackson Memorial Hospital’s computers to steal Versace’s medical records.

In Rome, 30 bodyguards escort Donatella and Santo through a press scrum to a limousine that will take them to a private jet bound for Miami.

11am: John Reid, Elton John’s manager, phones him at his holiday home in the South of France to tell him that Gianni has been murdered. Elton wrote later: ‘I turned on the TV in the bedroom and sat there, watching the coverage, bawling.’

Gianni and Antonio had been due to fly out and stay with Elton and his partner, David Furnish, the following week.

Naomi acted as Gianni’s muse and the pair developed an extremely close friendship while working alongside one another in the fashion industry (pictured in 1995) 

News of the murder reaches Princess Diana on Al Fayed’s yacht. She is shocked and upset, and believes Versace must have been killed by a terrorist.

Diana says to her bodyguard Lee Sansum: ‘Do you think they’ll do that to me?’

Diana calls Elton to ask how he’s coping with the tragic news and apologises for their row: ‘I’m sorry, it was a silly falling out. Let’s be friends.’

6pm: In Miami, forensic pathologist Dr Emma Lew carries out an autopsy on Gianni Versace’s body. The police have also brought in the dead pigeon, so she examines the bird, finding tiny metal fragments from the bullet in its eye.

By now the police have checked out the registration plates of William Reese’s red pick-up truck. The vehicle and its contents, plus a description of the gunman, point to Andrew Cunanan being the killer. A nationwide manhunt is launched and the police and FBI try to find a motive for Versace’s murder.

3.30am: Donatella and Santo arrive at Casa Casuarina from Italy, where the newspapers are dominated by the death of Gianni Versace.

La Repubblica writes: ‘He was killed like a prince laid low in his own blood, with one hand outstretched toward his oil paintings, his tapestries, his gold.’

Casa Casuarina is still surrounded by crowds, onlookers, TV crews, Press — and grieving fans.

Wednesday, July 16

10am: Gianni’s body has been taken from the hospital morgue to the Riverside Gordon Funeral Home in Miami. Donatella and Santo are given their dead brother’s personal effects — $1,173.63 in cash and a small picture of the Virgin Mary.

Versace is pictured at his home before his untimely death 

Donatella dresses her brother’s body ready for a cremation. She has asked a local florist to create five arrangements around the coffin, each representing a member of the Versace family.

The speed at which Gianni’s body is cremated leads to speculation that the fashion designer was HIV positive and that his siblings wanted to avoid any tests to keep his illness a secret and protect their fashion brand.

The Versace family have vehemently denied that Gianni was HIV positive. That night when everyone has gone, Donatella opens the metal gates of Casa Casuarina and kisses the spot where her brother was killed.

Tuesday, July 22

6pm: A week after the murder, the funeral service for Gianni Versace is about to begin at Milan’s cathedral, the Duomo.

The building is packed with famous names from the world of fashion, music, film and theatre. The Aga Khan is there, as is supermodel Naomi Campbell along with Versace’s fellow designers Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld.

Donatella said: ‘Gianni was killed like a stray dog. I want him to have a funeral fit for a prince.’

Hundreds of police and security men circle the building. A tearful Princess Diana is sitting next to a distraught Elton John and is photographed comforting him by patting his hand; both are wearing Versace in tribute to their friend. In just six weeks’ time, Elton will be playing Candle In The Wind at Diana’s own funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Gianni and Donatella Versace at the launch for their new fragrance ‘Versace’s Blonde’ in 1996

Elton and Sting have been asked by the Versace family to sing the 23rd Psalm, The Lord Is My Shepherd, but the cathedral’s hierarchy aren’t happy at two non-Catholics performing and so quiz them before the service to see if they are ‘suitable’.

Elton wrote: ‘It was horrible, like being dragged out before the school by the headmaster at assembly.’

Eventually, the priests give their permission and Sting and Elton sing, while in the congregation Donatella and Santo weep.

Thousands of miles away in the U.S., the manhunt for Andrew Cunanan continues.

Wednesday, July 23

3.35pm: On Miami Beach, about five miles from Casa Casuarina, a caretaker named Fernando Carreira and his wife are checking on a large light-blue houseboat they look after for a client.

The lock on the front door is broken and all the lights are on in the living room; cushions are scattered on the floor. Fernando says to his wife: ‘Somebody is here — right now.’

Suddenly there is a gunshot upstairs and the couple flee, convinced they are being fired at.

As TV helicopters hover above the houseboat, a police SWAT team arrives to flush out the killer. But once inside they discover Andrew Cunanan lying on the bed in a pool of blood.

He had shot himself in the mouth, using the gun he’d used to kill Gianni Versace.


Andrew Cunanan left no suicide note, so many questions about his killing spree are left unanswered. Police speculate that he believed he was already under a death sentence being HIV positive and felt he had nothing to lose by his heinous acts.

Antonio D’Amico still works as a fashion designer and lives with his partner in the Italian countryside.

After Gianni’s death, Donatella took on the role of artistic director for the brand, a position she retains to this day.

She was devastated by her brother’s murder and said to Elton John: ‘My life is like your Candle In The Wind! I want to die!’ Elton helped her kick an addiction to cocaine and pills.

Today, Versace remains a leading, global fashion brand and is valued at over £670 million.

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