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The Real Story Behind the Bizarre Assassination of Gianni Versace

The shocking murder of iconic fashion designer Gianni Versace was the last in a string of shootings by a delusional serial killer. Here’s what really happened.

Versace was a darling of the fashion industry. His designs graced women as varied as Princess Diana and Courtney Love; his infamous black safety pin dress gave Elizabeth Hurley a career. He and his partner of 15 years, Antonio D’Amico, lived a jet-set lifestyle most of us can only dream of, with homes all over the world. But in seconds, it all came crashing down in a random act of violence — or was it random after all?

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The morning of July 15, 1997, began in an unusual way for Versace, explained Vanity Fair‘s Maureen Orth in an article that was the precursor to her book Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace and the Largest Failed Manhunt in History (which in turn is the basis for the new TV miniseries American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace). Instead of sending his assistant to fetch the morning papers, Versace decided to enjoy the beautiful weather and fetch them himself. When he returned to his Miami mansion, he was accosted at the gate and shot twice at point-blank range.

Versace died where he fell, on the steps of his lavish villa. A witness directed one of Versace’s friends in the direction of the shooter, but after the shooter ran into a parking garage, all they found was a pile of clothing next to a pickup truck.

And in that pickup truck was all the information they needed to connect Versace’s murder with suspected spree killer Andrew Cunanan.

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Cunanan, a recent addition to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, was on the run and already the prime suspect in four other murders in Minneapolis, Chicago and New Jersey. The truck next to which he left that pile of clothing while making his getaway from the Versace mansion belonged to one of his victims, cemetery caretaker William Reese. In the truck, police found Cunanan’s passport, a personal check with his name on it and a pawn shop ticket for a gold coin he stole from his victim in Chicago, Lee Miglin. Immediately prior to those murders, Cunanan had bludgeoned former best friend Jeffrey Trail to death in Minneapolis, and later shot former boyfriend David Madson with Trail’s gun — the same gun used to kill his next two victims, including Versace.

After more than two months on the run, Cunanan, who had a history of convincing wealthy older men to support his lavish lifestyle, landed in Miami. Why did he target Versace? Some say he and the designer knew each other from the club scene. D’Amico and the Versace family deny this; they believe Cunanan simply knew he would finally achieve his dream of being famous if he killed such an iconic figure.

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He succeeded.

Cunanan’s face was being blasted across TV screens and newspapers worldwide, yet the police could not find him. A full eight days after Versace’s murder, they got a huge break in the case purely by chance: a houseboat’s caretaker noticed lights and movement on board and called the police. However, by the time police entered, it was too late. Cunanan had shot himself in the head with the same gun he used to kill William Reese and Jeff Trail.

The fashion world mourned Versace, and his star-studded funeral was attended by grief-stricken celebrities like Naomi Campbell, Elton John, Carla Bruni, Sting, Karl Lagerfeld, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and, in an eerie foreshadowing of her own death just a month later, Princess Diana. Campbell and John were both seen sobbing at the services.

Versace’s death changed the fashion scene forever. His sister Donatella took over running the company, and his niece Allegra inherited 50 percent of his estate. D’Amico, who did not enjoy a close relationship with the family, lost his job as a Versace designer and became embroiled in a legal battle for the inheritance Gianni wanted him to have. In the end, he settled for a fraction of the inheritance and became all but a recluse.

American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace examines the case using Orth’s book as its basis. How much of it is true is still a matter of debate for Gianni’s friends and family, but you can decide for yourself on Friday, when the show airs on FX.

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