MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Twenty years ago this week, a killing spree that made international headlines started in Minneapolis.
It is a story that took WCCO’s Esme Murphy across the country in search of the killer.
Andrew Cunanan will forever be known as the man who murdered fashion designer Gianni Versace.
The designer to stars — like Princess Diana and Madonna — is gunned down in broad daylight right in front of his Miami Beach mansion.
Within hours, a suspect is announced. It is Cunanan, who was at the top of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list for a murder spree that started in the North Loop of Minneapolis.
Before the Versace murder, Lt. Dale Barsness — then commander of the Minneapolis Police homicide unit — talked to WCCO in the summer of 1997.
“This is the travel bag we believe Andrew Cunanan brought to Minneapolis when he arrived on April 25. It’s got his name on it. He brought his belongings in this,” Barsness said.
It’s a chilling look at the handwriting of the mystery man from California; a man who looks different in every photograph, and whose name is pronounced differently over the course of a three-month manhunt.
Cunanan left his hometown of San Diego, saying in April of 1997 he has “some business in Minneapolis.”
David Madson, a former lover and popular Minneapolis architect, picks him up at the airport on a Friday night.
Cunanan stays with a mutual gay friend, Jeffrey Trail. The three men end up at Madson’s loft in the North Loop on Sunday night.
On Monday, neither Trail or Madson show up for work.
On Tuesday, April 29, friends are worried and call police. Madson’s friend, Linda Elwell, talked to WCCO in 1997.
“We knocked. ‘Hello? Hello? It’s us,'” Elwell said.
She says they hear Madson’s dog and some whispers inside. They leave without opening the door, but there’s a feeling something’s not right. They ask the manager to check a few hours later.
“I cracked the door and opened it and looked to my left and saw this thing wrapped in a rug that would appear to be a body,” said manager Jennifer Wiberg in a 1997 WCCO interview.
Twenty years later, Wiberg spoke again to WCCO.
“There was blood all over,” she said. “I remember seeing dark hair sticking out of the top of the carpet, later mentioning that it didn’t look like David’s hair.”
After some confusion about who in fact was brutally beaten to death with a hammer, police identify the victim as Trail.
It is from that moment of Trail’s brutal murder that one of the profound mysteries of Cunanan’s bloody rampage begins. Investigators say Madson and Cunanan spent the next five days together, the first two in the loft with Trail’s decaying body.
But they now believe Madson was being held hostage with a gun Cunanan had stolen from Trail — a gun he would use in all the other murders.
On May 3, Madson is found shot to death by a lake near Rush City in Chisago County.
Cunanan is now a suspect in two murders. The next day, there is a third victim.
On Monday, May 4, multi-millionaire Lee Miglin is found shot and tortured in the garage of his townhome on Chicago’s Gold Coast district.
Around the corner, police find a red Jeep Cherokee with Minnesota plates. The Jeep belongs to murder victim Madson.
The search for Cunanan continues throughout the East Coast, but exactly which city, exactly where, no one knows for sure.
On May 9, there is another victim. William Reese is a caretaker at a Civil War cemetery in New Jersey. Cunanan takes Reese’s life for a new getaway car.
Cunanan is now on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.
Investigators would later determine Cunanan is hiding in plain sight for the next two months in Miami’s South Beach.
Then on July 15, Versace is shot in cold blood. The red truck Cunanan stole from William Reese is found nearby. Inside the truck, they find some identification for Cunanan. He is now also wanted in Versace’s murder.
“This guy knows we’re after him,” said Barsness in 1997. “I think the end result is either he’s is going to commit suicide or he is going to end in a shootout with police.”
His prediction turns out to be true. Eight days after the Versace murder, Cunanan commits suicide in a nearby house boat.
Twenty years later, Barsness is haunted with the question: Why?
“He definitely wanted to re-establish a relationship with David Madson,” Barsness said.
Barsness believes the killing spree was triggered when Cunanan, who had bought a one-way ticket to Minneapolis, and was rejected by Madson that weekend.
Barsness thinks Cunanan became enraged, beating Trail to death and holding Madson captive.
“He was terrified of this guy, especially when he saw what he did to Jeffery Trail,” Barsness said.
Barsness insists law enforcement in the Twin Cities and across the country did all they could at the time.
“I mean, I don’t know what else we could have done,” he said.
But friends of Madson say there were early missteps in the investigation.
Remember the black bag with Cunanan’s name?
“It was kind of embarrassing to me,” said Minneapolis Police Sgt. Robert Tichich in 1997.
Tichich admits for days he had not bothered to look at the tag for days — never seeing it actually bared Cunanan’s name.
Investigators also missed a pair of bloody jeans. The apartment manager, Wiberg, found them days later after police had processed the scene.
“At the time, I thought it was pretty pathetic,” Wiberg said.
And then there is the moment early on when Madson went missing. His friends went to the loft with police, but didn’t enter over concerns officers would kill his beloved Dalmatian if it attacked. Convinced they heard whispers, they wonder if Madson and Cunanan were still there.
It’s possible that it was missed opportunity to stop a serial killer’s spree before it started.
“If the two officers and I had made a different decision, we could have saved David’s life, maybe Lee’s, William Reece’s and Gianni Versace,” Elwell said. “But we will never know that and that is the hard part.”
Twenty years later, we do know more about Andrew Cunanan. He was foremost a pathological liar, claiming to have been born to a wealthy family. In fact his money came from older, often closeted gay men he dated.
Among the questions that remain: Why Lee Miglin in Chicago? Miglin’s wife and family insist to this day he did not know Cunanan.
And why Versace? Many investigators say it was because Versace was everything Cunanan wasn’t: a gay man with a loving partner who was wealthy, successful and brilliant.