Back in the summer of 1997, South Beach in Miami, Florida, was a hot spot for models, actors, artists, and musicians – and one of the most famous residents was Gianni Versace, the 50-year-old Italian founder of designer fashion empire Versace. Living in a luxurious villa and in a committed long-term relationship, it seemed like he had it all – but, in a twist of fate, he was gunned down execution-style on his doorstep one summer morning.
Although the murderer was able to be easily identified and was later tracked down, much of the crime is surrounded in mystery. Several questions have gone unanswered, despite the Versace family’s quest to find the truth. Was Gianni targeted personally on that fateful day? What was the motive behind it? And had he ever met the perpetrator before? Read on to discover what we know about the brutal murder of Gianni Versace.
Gianni Versace was up by 6 AM on the morning of 15 July 1997 to make calls to Milan and do some work before heading out. His destination was News Café, which was only three blocks from his home in Miami – an extravagant villa named Casa Casuarina. Gianni was a regular at the café and exchanged pleasantries with the manger before heading back to his home.
He reached the villa and walked up the five marble steps before putting his key into the lock on the grand Iron Gate. It was at that exact moment that a dark-haired man named Andrew Cunanan walked up the steps behind Gianni and shot him twice – execution-style. He then casually turned around and walked away as though nothing had happened.
Andrew Cunanan was already wanted by the FBI as he was a suspect in four murders in three states. He was involved in some questionable circles, with even his own mother later describing him as a “high-class homosexual prostitute.” He’d gone into hiding in Miami two months before he shot Gianni Versace, but police were able to identify him as the murderer fairly quickly. A manhunt soon ensued.
While police combed Miami and the surrounding areas for Cunanan and the media plastered his face everywhere, the Versace family mourned. Gianni’s siblings, Santo and Donatella, flew in from Milan to bring the body back to Italy. On 22 July 1997 – one week after Gianni’s murder – an elaborate funeral was held at the Duomo, the impressive 14th-century cathedral located in the heart of Milan.
The funeral was a star-studded event fit for a prince. More than 2,000 people attended, including celebrities such as Anna Wintour, Karl Lagerfeld, Naomi Campbell (his favorite model), Elton John, and Sting (who sang a rendition of ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd’), and even Princess Diana, his most famous client. Most wore Versace designs in his memory, and the sound of crying could be heard echoing throughout the cathedral.
It wasn’t just the personal loss the funeral attendees were mourning, it was also the pitiless violence that had taken the life of another innocent person who had offered so much to the world. In fact, the crime had such a profound impact on people that it was compared with other high-profile celebrity murders that had a cultural impact, such as that of Sharon Tate in 1969 by Charles Manson’s followers.
The only difference was that Gianni’s brutal execution had no motive attached to it. The reason why Cunanan decided to end the designer’s life on that particular morning was a mystery – and he was still nowhere to be found. He hadn’t mentioned his intentions to anyone, nor had he written anything down that would indicate his thought process or twisted reasoning.
On 23 July 1997, less than two weeks after he killed Gianni, Cunanan decided to take another life: his own. His body was found in a houseboat just off Miami Beach – he had shot himself in the head with the same gun he used to kill Gianni. Although this brought an end to a nationwide manhunt that had lasted for two weeks, it marked the beginning of the Versace family’s long search for answers.
The Versace family tried to move forward, but it was difficult. Donatella fell into drug addiction, and she and Santo began to clash frequently. Accusations about who could have done more – and sooner – started flying around, and the family was in turmoil. However, they managed to pull it back together, and today, the Versace Empire is valued at a staggering $1.7 billion and is still privately owned by the family.
No solid answers were ever uncovered about why Gianni was murdered that day. The Versace family believes he did not know Cunanan – and no one really knows for sure whether they had ever crossed paths before that fateful morning. Moreover, it remains a mystery as to why Gianni was specifically singled out by Cunanan that day – and, with both men now dead, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know for certain.