Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Andrew Cunanan: After Me, Disaster

So Near, So Far

"Use every man after his desert, and who should scape whipping?" William Shakespeare

Immediately following the Versace murder, the press went wild. According to the author of Three Month Fever, Gary Indiana, "The killer, widely ignored while he left a trail of bodies from Minnesota to New Jersey, became, abruptly, a diabolic icon in the circus of American celebrity, and virtually any scrap of information about him, true, false, or in between, got reported as breathless fact along the entire spectrum of news providers. Cunanans life was transformed...into a narrative overripe with tabloid evil: ugly sex, drug dealing, prostitution, et cetera..."

Because the media watched the case unfold with such keenness, every step the Miami Beach Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation took was followed with open eyes and breathless anticipation of results. Journalist Maureen Orth calls the manhunt "comparable to the hunt for Martin Luther King, Jr. assassin James Earl Ray". Hundreds of FBI agents were called to the scene and the local police abandoned every other priority but Cunanan.

Every official move was under scrutiny, every dead end was magnified and every blunder scoffed. In the enormity of what had happened the unbelievable and senseless death of an idol in his prime and what was happening the failure to find Andrew Cunanan amidst cacophony and confusion and ridicule slip-ups did occur. Unfortunately, some of these "gaffes" had they been caught earlier might have saved Versace.

For one, while there had been confirmed sightings of Cunanan in Miami Beach prior to the murder, its citizenry had never been alerted. When this fact was divulged, the city revolted especially the members of the gay community, in whose circle the killer navigated. Why no one was warned remains a mystery.

"In fact, Cunanan came close to be being captured just four days before Versaces murder," Time magazine's Richard Lacayo informs us. "A sandwich shop employee, G. Kenneth Brown...had recognized a man ordering a tuna sub as Cunanan. Brown took the order back to the kitchen and sneaked to a telephone to dial 911. Police were dispatched, but while Brown was still on the phone, a co-worker took the customers money...and unwittingly let him walk out the door."

William Reeses Chevrolet pickup truck, which Andrew drove from New Jersey and left in a public garage near his hotel, remained unidentified until after the Versace killing; it had been left there, unmoved, for more than two months. The attentive and angry public demanded to know why the police had not investigated an obviously abandoned vehicle and why they hadnt checked every garage, every alley, every corner for that getaway vehicle especially since Cunanans presence in town had been established.

But, according to all the books on Cunanan, the lollapalooza of blunders, the deadliest of them, involved a departmental oversight that, in reverse, would have almost certainly resulted in Andrews apprehension and the survival of Versace. On July 7, eight days before Andrew struck, he had found himself strapped for money. He stopped at the Cash on the Beach Pawn Shop to sell one of the golden coins he had stolen from Lee Miglins townhouse in Chicago. The clerk gave him $200 for it. But, the procedure required Andrew to present two forms of identification, a signature and a current place of residence none which he could, if he wanted the money, lie about. He held his breath, produced two IDs, signed his real name, and wrote as his address the authentic Normandy Plaza Hotel. By law, the form was then expediently faxed by the pawn clerk to the Miami Beach Police Department. The reason for this procedure was simple so that the department could then match the names on each transaction against a printout of names appearing on an ongoing fugitives list. However, the form sent over by the Cash on the Beach on July 8 sat un-reviewed on the desk of a vacationing clerk until it came to light hours after Versace died.

The "comedy of errors" (to quote Wensley Clarkson) continued. Aware now where Andrew had been staying from the location stated on the pawnshop form a SWAT team invaded the Normandy Plaza and searched the room where Andrew was supposed to have been staying. They found only empty quarters. But, two days later, the hotel realized it had goofed, had given the FBI the wrong room number. This time the law burst into Room 322 to find several Cunanan effects, but, as everyone by this time expected, the owner of these possessions had long since fled.

Maureen Orth praises the aggressiveness of the FBI in their pursuit of Andrew, but points out that their A for effort was not enough. She determines what might have been an important cause behind the glitches. In Vulgar Favors, which records her coverage of the Andrew Cunanan case beginning to end, she explains: "I found denial throughout the country of wide-spread drug use (and) of other structures designed to foster such use, both in the gay community and in the part of the law enforcement, which seems uncomfortable with the idea of broaching certain subjects for fear it will be perceived as harassing gays. If the FBI were more familiar with the gay world of South Florida, for example, Andrew Cunanan, a Top Ten Wanted criminal, would never have been able to live freely at the Normandy Plaza Hotel for nearly two months or to leave a stolen red truck in a parking garage for weeks on end. As it was, a nationwide manhunt that cost millions produced little result."

She goes on to quote FBI agent Kevin Rickert from the Fugitive Task Force, who told her, "There were not many successful moments of the investigation, because we never were really close to him. We never did catch up to him."

Of course, Rickert speaks metaphorically because the FBI did indeed find their man on July 23, 1997,eight days after he gunned down the designer. That afternoon, a Portuguese caretaker made his routine rounds along the exclusive Indian Creek Canal to check on a private houseboat wharfed there by his boss, the German millionaire Torsten Reineck who was off sightseeing in Las Vegas. The caretaker noticed the door of the private residence ajar and decided to investigate. Nothing at first seemed out of place in the spacious living room, but upstairs he found himself suddenly face to face with a startled young man who, upon seeing him, ran into what was Herr Reinecks bedroom and slam its door behind him. The quick-thinking tradesmen realized that this must be that fugitive the FBI was searching for; once outside, he notified the police.

Reineck's houseboat (Miami PD)
Reineck's houseboat
(Miami PD)

Within minutes the houseboat was surrounded. Four hundred FBI agents and policeman took position on the wharf while sharpshooters stationed themselves in the windows of the surrounding apartment complex; police boats circled it and helicopters hovered inches above its level roof. The standoff began. For three hours the FBI edged closer, armed to kill if necessary. After Andrew failed to answer constant demands over blare horn to come out with hands up, the order to assault was given at 8:15 PM. Thrusting gas grenades into the windows, agents burst onto the premises expecting to meet with lunatic gunfire inside. But all was still.

After the lower quarters were pronounced clean, the agents moved upstairs, nervous fingers on their automatics. At the top of the stairs they fanned out. Silence... Nothing...No one. Just when they were at the point of believing that Andrew Cunanan had once again slipped thought their fingers, they found him.

He lay on the floor beside a bed, Jeff Trails Golden Saber pistol in his hand. The brain that had harbored dark, dark thoughts now spilled from a self-inflicted hole just above the right ear.

Policewoman examines Cunanan's body in the bedroom of houseboat (Miami Police Dept)
Policewoman examines Cunanan's
body in the bedroom of houseboat
(Miami Police Dept)

 

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