Cunanan 25 Years Later: A Reporter Remembers
Andrew Cunanan was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head on July 23, 1997, on a houseboat days after murdering fashion icon Gianni Versace on the steps of his South Beach mansion. Versace was the final victim of Cunanan’s cross-country killing spree that left bodies in Minnesota, Illinois, New Jersey, and Florida. In many ways, it all started in the Spring of 1997 in San Diego, Cunanan’s hometown.
I was one of the hundreds of reporters who covered that story. I’ve written extensively on his killing spree and the events leading up to it. I’ve given dozens of interviews about the facts and appeared on national television as an expert witness, so to speak.
What I haven’t done, before now, was share what it was like covering the story as a young 24-year-old reporter in way over his head at a small community newspaper suddenly thrust into the national spotlight. Because it’s not a reporter’s job, I’ve also never really talked about how I felt about the man I would come to call “Hurricane Andrew.”
How It All Started
Newspaper clippings of Andrew Cunanan America's Most Wanted
It was the Spring of 1997. I was the editor of Update, a pretty decent LGBTQ weekly newspaper that has since been lost to time and the digitization of news. I’d never met Cunanan and had never heard of him. When Marianne Kushi, then a beat reporter for our local NBC affiliate in San Diego called my desk on Monday, May 5 to ask me if I’d heard of him, the answer was “No.” A producer for the station, Paul Krueger had suggested she call me. Now retired, Paul was old-school. He knew the value of keeping relationships in every local community and when I became the editor at the publication Paul was the first to offer congratulations. So when Marianne called and dropped Paul’s name I agreed to ask around, if only as a favor. She said Cunanan might be gay and was from San Diego and had been implicated in a pair of murders in Minneapolis. One of the victims was a former sailor who may have spent time here. She was working that angle.
Marianne told me Cunanan’s home address at the time, which wound up being a 10-minute walk from my apartment. Gay San Diego is a six-degree kind of place so I figured I must know someone who knew him. I called around and it wasn’t long before I got the tea, though as it turns out, nobody really knew Andrew Cunanan.
With just a little digging I found out he went by the name DeSilva — just one of many facades he would carry throughout his life. He was raised in a middle-class suburb north of San Diego, but his father fled back to the Philippines after some illegal stock trading, abandoning his family. His mom moved him into a working-class neighborhood south of the city, earning what she could babysitting.
But Cunanan was smart, witty, and charming and would eventually earn a charity scholarship to attend high school at a prestigious private school in the wealthy enclave of La Jolla (think Beverly Hills on the beach). Here he would develop a flamboyant persona and dreams of a big life. He would regale his classmates with the inevitable successes he would achieve. He was going to be big.
Cunanan was definitely gay and he liked two very different types of men. He liked to spend the early part of his evenings with typically older men, wealthy, who were cultured, worldly, accomplished, and who liked to travel and wouldn’t think twice at the idea of taking him along as a travel companion. He liked their refinement and their bank accounts.
To them, he was good eye candy. He was young, charming, charismatic, lean, and very handsome with smooth, brown skin. He was good conversation, too. While he lacked formal education, he was knowledgeable about fine wine, arts, culture, history, and fashion — knowledge he cultivated while trying to fit in at the fancy private school.
But when it was those older men’s bedtime, Cunanan had a different type. He liked young, all-American “jock” types, gym-toned with squared-off jaws and handsome faces — and the kinkier the better. When he was with the younger men, it was all about sex and showing off. Friends would say Cunanan liked to show off, often with the money he would be given as an allowance from the older men whose company he would keep.
About the time I was going to ring up Marianne to let her know what I’d found out, my phone rang again. A Chicago reporter working for the CBS affiliate had found our paper’s number in their copy of the San Diego yellow pages they had on file in their newsroom. Back then newsrooms had phonebooks. The reporter told me Cunanan had killed again, the day before. This time the victim was a very wealthy real estate developer named Lee Miglin, and it was gruesome.
Investigating the Killing SpreeWhat had started as a double-homicide in Minneapolis was now a killing spree and a very big, developing story. The Chicago reporter told me what he knew and I told him what I had been told by Marianne and my community contacts, but was still trying to verify a few things. When I hung up I called Marianne and told her about my call with Chicago and what I’d been able to piece together. I also told her that I was working on confirming something that now seemed pretty important.Cunanan had a going-away dinner of sorts about a week before at a favorite restaurant of his. Who was there, and what was said, needed to be confirmed, because it wasn’t the kind of thing that I could be wrong about.
Marianne asked me how much time I needed. “Give me about an hour.” She graciously gave me two and told me she was going to talk to Paul but that they were probably going to be sending a “crew.” Back then that meant a reporter and a camera operator. Not long after I hung up with Marianne our receptionist told me that CBS Chicago was on the phone again. I knew more about their suspect than anyone he had talked to (thanks to Marianne, mostly), so they wanted to send a crew from the San Diego affiliate. The idea was the local CBS crew would shoot a segment for the local station and the Chicago station. “I need a couple of hours to lock in some facts,” I said.
“Will 3:00 p.m. be ok?”
It was 11 a.m. “Sure.”
Over the next couple of hours, I set about trying to find the waiter who served Cunanan at his going away dinner at a restaurant called California Cuisine, a pretty nice joint in the heart of San Diego’s gayborhood, and pretty far away from my $250 a week paycheck. I had a line on who that might be. I had spoken to one person who said he was there but for this kind of thing, a reporter needs double confirmation. If someone threw a going-away party for Cunanan, then that meant he wasn’t coming back, which might put these murders into a different perspective.
About an hour later I found the waiter. Initially, he was reluctant to talk to me, but since he knew I was part of “the community” he agreed. The dinner happened. I even got confirmation on who paid the check. That it wasn’t Cunanan wasn’t a surprise. My reporting at this point suggested he was broke, at the end of his rope, and out of favor with all of his wealthy benefactors. In fact, he was even down a friend, with his bestie, a former Navy Lieutenant, a guy named Jeff having recently moved away to Minneapolis to be closer to family.
But it was something else about this dinner that was ominous. It was what he said as the dinner was wrapping up, as the waiter was clearing away the plates.
Cunanan, I was told, leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head as he stretched — as one would after a satisfying meal. He looked around the table at those gathered and said “All of you think you know me when the truth is, none of you know the real Andrew.”
A few hours later I told that story to the NBC affiliate in San Diego and the CBS crews for San Diego and Chicago, along with everything else I had confirmed. I told them where he went to high school, the name he used – DeSilva and not Cunanan – and that there was an inscription in French that appears next to his picture in his high school yearbook, which when translated means “After me, comes the flood.” It was a famous quote from Louis XIV, who was just as dramatic and destructive as the guy who cribbed it.
Our local NBC station is what’s called an “O&O” which means it’s owned and operated by NBC, so it’s a network-owned station. Anything that airs on it can be picked up by any other NBC station pretty easily. For a story like this, I should have guessed what was going to happen next.
The Media Frenzy
Starting at about 8 pm Pacific Time, or 11:00 pm Eastern, and for the next 48 hours, all hell started breaking loose. San Diego was about to be hit by every kind of journalist, good and bad (mostly bad) and lots of people were going to get their 15 minutes of fame, whether they should or not. Oh, and my cell phone battery died from reporters calling me from all over the country, each wanting to set up interviews.
Meanwhile, three people had been killed and I had a job to do. I had to find out why — from my office in San Diego without any kind of travel budget. Fortunately, I had leverage. While reporters around the country were trying to get to me, I would only talk to the ones who felt like sharing. Typically reporters don’t play well with others. We’re competitive. We don’t want to get scooped but I wasn’t really competition. I worked for a small, regional weekly publication and websites weren’t a thing in 1997, at least Update didn’t have one, and anyway, we had a very specific readership. We weren’t going to be scooping 48 Hours or Good Morning America, or any local TV stations. The smart reporters knew that. So, if they wanted me to talk, they had to tell me what they knew. For the most part, this worked out for a couple of months, as we all tried to piece together what happened.
The facts were simple, horrifying, and heartbreaking.
On the Run
Not long after that dinner, Cunanan boarded a plane and went to see his friend Jeff Trail, a former lieutenant in the Navy, who had spent time in San Diego. Trail had moved to Minneapolis after leaving the Navy, following a short stint in the Highway Patrol academy. We would learn later that he and Cunanan had a falling out but Trail was trying to stay cordial and keep up appearances, perhaps to not alienate Cunanan, who had fallen on seriously hard times.
When Cunanan landed in Minneapolis on Friday, April 25, David Madsen, an ex-boyfriend of Cunanan and an up-and-coming architect in the area, picked Cunanan up at the airport and took him to dinner with some friends. Cunanan would spend the night at Madsen’s apartment but would spend Saturday night at Trail’s apartment alone. Trail was spending a romantic night away with his boyfriend, who was turning 21, at a quaint Bed & Breakfast and was letting Cunanan use the apartment while he was away, perhaps (and this is total conjecture) to not burden Madsen more than necessary as he knew the two had broken up.
While Cunanan was at Trail’s apartment on Saturday, April 26th, he stole Trail’s handgun and took it with him back to Madsen’s apartment, where he was scheduled to spend Sunday night. Cunanan had left a message for Trail to come see him at Madsen’s apartment and when Trail and his boyfriend returned Sunday, April 27th, Trail realized his gun was missing.
The couple had plans to go out that night with friends to a local dance club and continue the boyfriend’s birthday celebration. Trail said he would just meet up with them after going to see Madsen and Cunanan for a few minutes. He said nothing about the missing gun.
Right before Trail got to Madsen’s apartment, Madsen took his dog Prints out for a walk. When Trail arrived he was livid with Cunanan, shouting at him as soon as the door was opened. Within a few seconds Cunanan bludgeoned Trail across his temple with a claw hammer and quickly dragged Trail’s crumpled body into Madsen’s apartment. Cunanan continued to pummel him in the chest and stomach until Trail’s lifeless body stopped responding.
Within a few moments, Madsen returned to the apartment with Prints and walked in on the scene.
Putting the Pieces Together
What happened over the next few days is unclear. We know Madsen stayed in the apartment with Cunanan and the two were seen walking Prints in the neighborhood, and this is confirmed by witness accounts. However, what is also confirmed by witness accounts but largely overlooked in subsequent media coverage, was that Cunanan was wearing a heavy jacket during those walks, in May, during warm and sunny days, with his hands in the coat pockets, while Madsen was in shorts and a t-shirt.
When police entered Madsen’s apartment two days later and found a body wrapped in a carpet, initially they thought it was Madsen. When they heard a phone ringing on the body, they answered it, as is standard procedure. It was Trail’s boyfriend. This was confirmed during my exclusive interview with him I conducted a year later that only ever ran in Update. The police asked him who he was. He told them and said he was calling his boyfriend Jeff. A few minutes later, and without revealing anything, the police ended the conversation.
When police continued their search of Madsen’s apartment they found wrist restraints near his bed, the kind used for bondage scenes. It has always been my theory that Madsen was forced to stay in the apartment and was restrained to the bed and kept quiet by gunpoint while Cunanan figured out his next move.
I don’t believe he expected to kill Trail, that it was an act of passion — the motivation for which is unclear. I believe Madsen had walked in on it complicating the situation and Cunanan needed time to think. So he kept Madsen restrained on the bed, quiet, while he thought. To keep the dog quiet, the two would walk him at regular intervals. During these walks I believe Cunanan kept Madsen at gunpoint, hiding the gun under the coat with his hand on the gun in his pocket.
About the time Trail’s body was found, while police were still trying to identify it, Cunanan took David Madsen, in Madsen’s red Jeep Cherokee, to Rush Lake, about 65 miles north of the city, and shot him in the face, head, and back, with Jeffrey Trail’s gun. He would then head southeast, about 450 miles to Chicago. He was now on the run and he needed money.
This would lead him to Lee Miglin.
There has been much conjecture over the years about whether or not Cunanan knew Miglin. Miglin certainly fit the wealthy, older man profile that my reporting had shown funded much of Cunanan’s life before this spree began. However, nothing ever corroborated any of that conjecture, even after 25 years. The murder appeared pretty random, if conveniently coincidental. Cunanan came across Miglin sweeping up the garage. The garage door was open. Cunanan probably struck up a conversation and when Miglin was off-guard, he would have struck. A gun would have been too noisy so he used what was handy in the garage — a screwdriver, a bag of cement mix and a gardening saw to cut Miglin’s throat. Miglin’s face was also wrapped with cellophane, probably to keep him quiet. The timing was convenient because Miglin’s wife, a cosmetics rainmaker for QVC, was out of town on an overnight business trip. Cunanan took some gold coins from the Miglin home and their green Lexus. But before he left, he made himself a sandwich, leaving half of it on the kitchen counter.
About four days later, Cunanan drove into Manhattan with Miglin’s Lexus. He activated the car’s phone and the FBI pinged it, and then released that news to the media, who reported it. Cunanan heard about it, probably on the radio. This likely cost William Reese his life. Cunanan now knew he needed a new car.
A cemetery caretaker in New Jersey, William Reese was a Civil War buff who was married with a pre-teen special-needs son. Reese owned an old pick-up. When a new Lexus pulled up to the workshop at Finn’s Point National Cemetery where the 45-year-old worked, he probably didn’t know he wasn’t going to make it home that night. Cunanan shot Reese, execution style, and then stole his truck. He would drive it to Miami. Along the way, he would exchange a couple of those gold coins for some cash.
A few months later, after skulking around in South Beach, he would walk up to Versace and shoot him on the steps of his compound. Eight days after that, the coward would shoot himself in the head. I should point out here that it was the gunshot that was reported, not that people spotted Cunanan in the houseboat. Police had no idea at this point where he was, or what city he was in.
Back in San Diego
In San Diego, we were all worried he was going to show up here. The week Versace was shot was the week of San Diego Pride. The late Mandy Schultz, the event's Executive Director at the time, told me she and her team had gone through a briefing where the San Diego Police Department had shared they would be deploying snipers on the rooftops of the parade route and plain-clothes police officers in the crowd, just in case Cunanan showed up. I was scheduled to appear on Good Morning America Friday morning, the day before the parade, to talk about the fear of Cunanan returning. Fortunately, my appearance on GMA had a very different vibe, the day after Cunanan was confirmed dead. It was more about closure.
After completely failing in literally every possible way, the FBI, and the police departments in Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, and Miami are at least partially to blame for the deaths of William Reese and Gianni Versace, as they ignored leads and wouldn’t engage with local gay communities, steps that could well have lead to the earlier apprehension of the murderer.
The media made the story worse, with more than a few unscrupulous journalists caring more about being first than being right, and putting anyone in front of a camera without first stopping to think whether or not they should. This led to more than a few wholly inaccurate stories being peddled as truth, including one whopper that Cunanan was lashing out because he was convinced he was HIV-positive. He wasn’t. There was even a story one that he had killed a San Diego man whose murderer was already behind bars. He didn’t.
Much has been written of those failings over the years, some by the excellent journalist and author Maureen Orth in her book Vulgar Favors. Her work, heavily researched and sourced, served as the launching point for the writers of the poorly named and often fictional FX True Crime Anthology The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.
Along with Ms. Orth, I suppose I’m about the only other reporter still considered an expert on Cunanan and when shows like Dateline NBC do anniversary retrospectives as they did on the 20th anniversary, they always include her and me. That will inevitably lead to our hometown stations following with coverage of their own on 20-year and 25-year anniversaries. For my part, this is mostly because I picked up the phone back in May 1997.
Earlier in this reflection, I posited that I talked to a lot of people who spent time with Cunanan but probably nobody who really knew him. That’s because I don’t think it’s possible anyone could have. He lied all the time about who and what he was. To some, he would lie about being in the import/export business. To others, he was playing bit parts in movies. For more important audiences, he would spin tails about building sound-proofing materials in factories in Mexico. Others thought him a drug dealer. His mother, incapable of nuance, told me her son was “a high-class prostitute for homosexuals.” Then she hung up on me.
The only thing about Andrew Cunanan that was true is that after living a completely unremarkable life, he died a coward, and in the end, he is famous not for the life he lived, but for the lives he took. When he did, he cut short the lives of what I found in my reporting to be amazing human beings who were vibrant, talented, and who managed to achieve something Andrew Cunanan was never able to. Everyone he killed had managed to be loved for who they really were, without pretext or pretense.