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Phantom Was Everyone and Nowhere

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 1997; Page A01

He was so elusive, so slippery, the cops had trouble even finding his corpse.

But Andrew P. Cunanan's long run from justice appeared to end last night in a way so many experts had predicted, in violence. This time, he was his own victim. A body found on a houseboat -- somehow overlooked initially -- matches the description of the suspected killer, police said.

The man they found apparently took his life with a gunshot to the head -- the same way Gianni Versace was killed on July 15 outside his palatial home only a couple miles south on Miami Beach.

Police had suspected that Cunanan never left South Florida. They were right. Cunanan had apparently holed up in a houseboat parked in the gentle waters along Collins Avenue near the portion of Miami Beach called Condo Canyon. A furious manhunt ended the way it began, in confusion and mystery.

"It appears that no one is inside," police spokesman Al Boza told reporters at about 8:30 p.m., after SWAT team members stormed the houseboat. A couple of hours later, the truth began to leak. There was a body. It bore "similarities" to the description of Cunanan. "Believe me. It's him," said a Miami Beach detective.

For days, Cunanan had seemed to be everywhere, and yet nowhere. He had become a phantom, haunting the country. With the murder of Versace pushing his case to a ever greater levels of notoriety, Cunanan still managed for more than a week to elude detection. Cunanan spotting had become a national obsession. He was reported to have been in New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Dakota.

Yesterday, police searched small towns a few hours from the Canadian border. He wasn't there. They talked to an eyewitness who had seen someone looking like Cunanan go into a Wal-Mart in Greensboro, N.C. Another false alarm.

Earlier in the day, the passengers and crew of a Continental Airlines flight from Newark to Houston became so convinced that one of their fellow travelers was Cunanan that the pilot radioed ahead to Houston. Police met the plane when it landed. The air traveler who had generated the suspicion wasn't Cunanan. Yet another bum tip.

The FBI's Cunanan hot line -- 1-888-FBI-9800 -- had nearly 670 "substantive" tips in the first three days. None bore fruit. It was only when a caretaker of the houseboat in Miami Beach checked on the property that the endgame began.

If Cunanan was indeed Versace's killer, it is unknown why he did it. Theories have been thrown around. What is certain is that at 27 he was a man in a profound decline, losing his looks, estranged from his mother and father, no longer involved with his "Sugar Daddy" boyfriend, out of money, with few close friends. Something made him snap.

Philip Horne, a friend who almost became Cunanan's roommate in San Francisco this spring, said, "He was feeling like a loser. His life had peaked, and it was starting to head downhill."

The case spawned an industry of long-distance Andrew Phillip Cunanan psychoanalysis.

"This is a man who has no superego and has no conscience and has no internal mechanisms to stop him from achieving any kind of narcissistic needs," Rami Mosseri, a psychotherapist for the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services in New York City, said of Cunanan last week. "By killing a celebrity he can achieve higher fame. At the core of this is the need to be a celebrity himself."

Robert K. Ressler, the renowned former FBI serial killer profiler, put the situation in plainer language: "The motivation for this is a death wish. . . . He is suicidal."

If police are correct, he killed once -- a friend from San Diego named Jeffrey Trail -- and then could not stop.

Trail's body was found April 29 in Minneapolis, rolled up in a rug. His head had been savagely bludgeoned with a claw hammer.

On May 3, two fishermen found the body of David Madson, Cunanan's former lover, shot three times and left in the reeds of a lake north of Minneapolis. There has been speculation that Madson knew of Trail's murder and had been silenced.

The next day, police found the body of Lee Miglin, a Chicago real estate tycoon with no known connection to Cunanan. This murder seemed especially grisly: Miglin had been bound, his head wrapped in masking tape with holes left for the nostrils. His throat had been slashed with a saw. His chest was crushed, and jabbed with a blunt instrument. The killer had carefully shaved, leaving hair in the sink.

Cunanan is believed to have stolen Miglin's Lexus. He made calls on the cellular phone, but stopped after the press reported that authorities were using the phone calls to track him. On May 9, William Reese, the caretaker of a Civil War cemetery in New Jersey, was found murdered, apparently so that the killer could take his red pickup truck.

The trail grew cold until Versace was gunned down in broad daylight as he returned home from the News Cafe on South Beach.

Police suspected Cunanan before the day was out. For the next eight days, South Florida was on full Cunanan alert. He was suspected initially in the murder of a doctor in Miami Springs, another false alarm. He was seen at a Sheraton -- bogus. The manhunt became the largest in recent FBI history.

Even before the Versace killing, Cunanan was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list and had been featured four times on the Fox TV program "America's Most Wanted." Yet he was able to move with impunity -- even using his own name to pawn a gold coin allegedly stolen from one victim -- through big cities like New York and Miami. He showed that America can be a fugitive-friendly environment.

In midtown Manhattan in May, he bought jeans at a Levi's store, and stayed in a low-rent hotel. In Miami Beach, he apparently shopped at a popular bookstore. An employee of a sandwich shop in Miami Beach recognized Cunanan from "America's Most Wanted" five days before the Versace shooting. The employee called 911, but police arrived after Cunanan had walked away. Cunanan, in fact, was staying just a few blocks away, at the Normandy Plaza hotel. The Miami Beach police department has not explained its handling of the case, including the failure to notice paperwork showing that Cunanan had pawned the gold coin.

He had been at the Normandy Plaza for two months, from May 12 until the night before Versace's murder. When he disappeared he left behind in his room cosmetics, fashion magazines and the novel "About Schmidt" by Louis Begley, which Cunanan had checked out of the public library.

With his face plastered all over the news, on the covers of Time and Newsweek, on fliers, on the Internet, everywhere, Cunanan had few places to go. His father lived in the Philippines, having fled the country in 1988 after being accused of financial fraud. One necessity of fugitive life is separation from friends and family, but that was not Cunanan's problem, because he had no contact with his family and two of his best friends were murdered, allegedly by Cunanan. His last roommate was under FBI protection.

"When he is located," predicted Joe Conley, a former FBI agent, a day before the body was found, "he is going to orchestrate his own violent confrontation."

There are numerous cases of highly sought fugitives staying free for more than a decade. Katherine Ann Power, a '60s radical and bank robber, eluded capture for 23 years before finally turning herself in. John List was a New Jersey accountant who murdered his entire family. He disappeared for two decades, relocated to Richmond, called himself "Bob Clark," kept doing accountant work, and didn't get caught until shortly after "America's Most Wanted" featured him in June 1989.

There's even literature available with tips on how to reinvent yourself. A North Hollywood, Calif., company called Survival Books has a World Wide Web home page where you can order such books as "Scram," by James S. Martin, which tells how to relocate under a new identity. The company's motto is "Hard Core Information for Hard Core Survival."

Some people can do it. Cunanan had gone too far. He wasn't someone fleeing a child support payment, or a parole officer. He was the most wanted man in America.

The end of the Cunanan story will calm the fears of numerous people who thought they could be his next victim. In San Diego, there had been concern that Cunanan would return for the gay pride festival. The FBI yesterday had been contacting prominent figures in the gay community, saying they should be on the lookout.

"There is a sense of relief from the family," said Mark Jarasek, a spokesman for the Miglin family, which had been following reports of the Miami Beach standoff all evening. "But there's nothing that would bring back Lee Miglin."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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