A handful of serial killers have been gay men with such internalized homophobia that they struck out at other men (e.g., John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer), but the case of Andrew Phillip Cunanan signaled a turning point in how police and the gay community worked together to prevent predation and capture predators.
Cunanan was a swarthy, bright, and handsome young gay man who was intensely concerned about his appearance and status in life. As early as his teens, he was known to come up with fantastic tales about himself to impress his peers. A preppy son of a stockbroker, Cunanan moved after college to San Francisco’s Castro district, where he developed relationships with many sugar daddies who supported his lifestyle. He was no street hustler, though; Nicole Ramirez-Murray, a San Diego columnist who knew Cunanan, told The Washington Post that Cunanan modeled himself after Richard Gere in American Gigolo, even dressing like the character. His wealthy, older gay benefactors gifted him with cars, European vacations, and cash.
But youth is fleeting, and Cunanan began to lose his appeal — and his lovers. He started getting sick and had taken an HIV test but never returned for the results, instead convincing himself he was HIV-positive. He became depressed and reportedly let himself go physically after another of his lovers left him.
Jeffrey Trail and Cunanan dated when the two lived in San Diego. Trail was a closeted naval officer during “don’t ask, don’t tell.” When he moved to Bloomington, Minn., to manage a propane delivery company, Cunanan was reportedly heartbroken. On one visit he noticed that another of his former flames, David Madson, had also migrated to the Minneapolis area, and became convinced that Madson and Trail were lovers. After arguing on the phone with Trail, who denied the relationship, Cunanan told a bartender in San Francisco he would be out of town on some unfinished business, boarded a plane, and within hours, on April 25, 1997, he killed Trail with a heavy claw hammer during an argument in Madson’s apartment, where the latter two men had gathered to convince Cunanan nothing was going on. In shock, Madson helped Cunanan cover up the crime, but four days later, Cunanan drove Madson’s Jeep to a country road north of Minneapolis and put three bullets in his skull.
A few days later, Cunanan accosted 72-year-old Chicago developer Lee Miglin, a successful married man, in front of his home just moments after the neighbors saw Miglin standing alone. Police never ascertained whether Cunanan even knew this victim. TruTV reported that Cunanan marched Miglin into his own garage, bound his wrists, wrapped his face with duct tape “and proceeded to put him through a series of tortures lifted directly from what was said to be Andrew’s favorite ‘snuff’ film, Target for Torture. Pummeling him, kicking him, he then drove a pair of pruning shears into the man’s chest several times, muffling his screams. While Miglin still breathed, Andrew proceeded to slice his throat slowly with a hacksaw.” Afterward, Cunanan drove Miglin’s own Lexus over the body repeatedly.
The murder was so gruesome, it was clear that Cunanan was escalating. After Miglin’s murder the FBI added Cunanan to its Ten Most Wanted list. At this point, the LGBT communities in several cities were on edge, and reports of Cunanan sightings were sent in to police in multiple states. Posters of Cunanan were plastered across the Castro, Miami’s South Beach, and North Carolina’s gay nightclubs in Durham. It was rare for violence to come from within the gay community, and rarer still that the police and federal investigators were listening to gay complaints. After Miglin’s murder, many worried that Cunanan would return to San Francisco for the annual LGBT Pride Parade, and some people considered bowing out of the festivities, which attract hundreds of thousands. Turns out he was miles away.
Less than a week after Miglin’s murder, Cunanan killed 45-year-old William Reese at the Finn's Point National Cemetery in Pennsville, N.J., stealing his truck and leaving his last stolen vehicle there to taunt police and Reese’s bereaved widow, who found him. After that Cunanan headed to Miami, where he managed to evade police without seemingly trying, while going to gay clubs, hanging out at the beach and local tennis courts, and picking up men for occasional trysts.
Then, on July 15, 1997, Cunanan shot Gianni Versace outside the wealthy fashion design star’s home in South Beach and ran away as a witness tried but failed to tail him. There was no connection between the men, and forensic psychologists struggled to determine why Versace had been targeted. Many posited that perhaps Versace, a wealthy, glamorous, and attractive scion of Miami Beach, represented to Cunanan all that he wanted and believed he deserved but ultimately could never have. Versace’s murder led to a manhunt for Cunanan in Florida, and eight days later, as police closed in on a houseboat where Cunanan had been holed up, the serial killer used that same gun that killed Versace — stolen from his very first victim — to kill himself. He was 27.