SOUTH BEACH (CBSMiami) — As Gianni Versace lay mortally wounded on the steps of his South Beach mansion, his personal chef called 911 for help and asked, “Who would have done something like that?”
It wouldn’t take long for police to discover the answer to that question. On that morning, July 15, 1997, Andrew Cunanan walked up behind Gianni Versace on the steps in front of the fashion designer’s South Beach mansion and shot him twice in the back of the head.
“The good thing was we knew within a matter of a couple of hours we were looking for Andrew Cunanan,” said Carlos Noriega, the former Miami Beach police chief who in 1997 was the lieutenant overseeing the department’s homicide unit.
As the twentieth anniversary of Versace’s death approaches, those involved in the investigation are remembering the chaos surrounding the murder.
“What made this even more surreal at the time was now we are looking for one of America’s Ten Most Wanted FBI subjects and it just added to what was becoming a pressure cooker for the police department,” Noriega recalled.
Before killing Versace, Cunanan – a failing male gigolo – had gone on a cross-country killing spree, taking the lives of four men: Jeffrey Trail, David Madsen, Lee Miglin and William Reese.
Reporters across the country wondered where Cunanan would strike next as Cunanan’s friends were notified he could be in their area.
Turned out, Cunanan was in Miami Beach, where he hid in plain sight for two months, staying at the Normandy Plaza Hotel on Collins, before targeting Versace. There were opportunities to catch him – a tip he was at a Miami Subs brought police too late. And Cunanan offered his real name and address when he filled out the forms at a local pawn shop to sell a gold coin belonging to one of his early victims.
“I think we made mistakes period. It’s just part of the process when you have something that significant of that magnitude you are going to make mistakes,” Noriega said.
After Versace was shot the manhunt for Cunanan went into overdrive, as media from around the world descended on Miami Beach.
Police looked at other theories as well. A dead dove found next to the body suggested it might have been the work of the mafia. Turned out a bullet passed through Versace, struck the metal gate, splintered and one of the bullet fragments struck and killed the dove.
“Talk about bad timing,” Noriega said.
On July 23, a caretaker, 71-year-old Fernando Carreira, was checking on a houseboat at 52nd and Collins when he realized it appeared someone may have been inside.
Carreira, now 91, is still carrying the same gun he had that day.
“I give only one step with the gun like that “BOOM” – I run right away, my wife and myself, we run out because we thought somebody shoot at me. I no see no one, somebody shoot at me, I thought of that,” he recalled.
Carreira fled and called police. Police immediately suspected it was Cunanan who was found in the upstairs bedroom, with a single shot to the head. Noriega believes that when Cunanan heard the caretaker enter the houseboat, he feared it was the police and he killed himself. In hindsight, Noriega says it made sense Cunanan would kill himself.
“It aligns with the profile and his life and his behavior and his character and personality that he wanted to control everything including the way he died,” Noriega said.
Despite the mistakes that were made in the case, Noriega said he is proud of how the department handled the investigation.
“His reign of terror stopped here on Miami Beach,” he said. “He did not get an opportunity to kill somebody else, go somewhere else or escape and never be found again. He was found. He was stopped. He was cornered, however you want to describe it but he never got a chance to do anymore damage after he killed Gianni Versace.”
Twenty years later, one mystery remains. Why did Cunanan kill Versace? Noriega believes Versace and Cunanan may have met in the past. Others believe Cunanan killed Versace so he would become famous.
To learn more, tune in to CBS4 for a special – “The Versace Murder: A South Beach Story” – on Sunday, July 16th at 11:30 a.m.