Renowned Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace was shot in the head and killed in front of his oceanfront mansion this morning and law enforcement officials tonight identified a man wanted in four murders elsewhere as the only suspect.

"We are currently looking for Andrew Phillip Cunanan, known to be a male prostitute who services an affluent clientele," Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Barreto said at an evening news conference at police headquarters, just two blocks from Versace's lavish, gated home in the heart of Miami Beach's tourist district.

Barreto described Cunanan, 27, as "well-educated, well-dressed and articulate" and said he "should be considered armed and dangerous." The chief said he did not know if Cunanan had a relationship with Versace, 50, who was homosexual.

Barreto said police had found evidence -- including clothing and a stolen 1995 red Chevy pickup truck parked in a nearby public parking garage -- allegedly tying Cunanan to the Versace murder.

Cunanan is the chief suspect in four other murders, including that of his former male lover and another man in Minnesota, one in Chicago and, most recently, one in New Jersey. After his alleged murder spree began in early May, the FBI launched an intense nationwide manhunt for Cunanan and included him in the 10 suspects on its "most wanted" list. Fliers with his photo and a warning that he is dangerous have circulated widely in East Coast bars, clubs and health facilities with gay clientele.

FBI special agent Paul R. Philip said at tonight's Miami Beach news conference that the brown-haired, brown-eyed Cunanan had been sighted several weeks ago in Palm Beach County, north of Miami, so law enforcement officials knew he was in the area. Philip made a passionate plea for help in tracking down Cunanan, saying, "Nobody is safe. Everybody's got to help us find this guy."

Cunanan, who was living in San Diego until the end of April under the alias Andrew DeSilva, was known there as a "party boy" who liked to dance bare-chested at hard-rock bars frequented by young professionals and off-duty military personnel. His mother, Maryann Cunanan, who has been estranged from him for years, told a Chicago newspaper that her son was a "high-class male prostitute."

According to Miami Beach police, Versace had just returned from his ritual early morning trip to the chic News Cafe to pick up some magazines, and was "in the process of opening the gate" to his palatial, 26,000-square-foot home, Casa Casuarina, when he was shot twice in the back of the head with a pistol at point-blank range.

The killer then just "walked away. There was no robbery," Barreto said.

Several people who heard the pop of the gunshots rushed to the scene where Versace, covered in blood, lay unmoving. Martin Weinstein, 49, said that he heard the shots and ran down the street. "And when I arrived, I saw a guy lying on the step in a pool of blood," he said. "At first I didn't realize who it was. But then I realized it was Versace."

The designer, whose flashy outfits have adorned stars from Princess Diana to rock star Elton John, was rushed by ambulance to the University of Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Barreto said witnesses described the gunman as white, in his mid-twenties, wearing a gray or white shirt, dark trousers, a cap and a backpack. The backpack and clothes were found near the red pickup, which law enforcement officials said had the vehicle identification number of a truck stolen from a New Jersey cemetery caretaker allegedly shot in the head by Cunanan in May. Police had been led to the pickup by witnesses to the murder, who saw the shooter walk to the garage, get into the pickup and change clothes before walking away and hailing a taxi.

Officials here moved quickly to assure tourists and residents that this was not the latest in a series of high-profile random crimes that have threatened the tourist industry and made the Miami area synonymous with crime, particularly among foreign tourists.

"The information that we now have suggests that this terrible crime was an extraordinary occurrence and not just a random robbery," said Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, whose jurisdiction includes this beach community of 92,000. "This could have happened in any city in the world."

Penelas called Versace "one of our most distinguished residents, a citizen of the world who chose to call Miami Beach home."

The Italian designer bought the oceanfront mansion, the only single-family private residence on Ocean Drive in the Art Deco District of South Beach, five years ago for $2.9 million. He poured millions more into renovating it and decorating it with his own fabrics and bought a neighboring piece of property to ensure his privacy. The house has 16 bedrooms, two kitchens, a mosaic-lined swimming pool, a two-story library and two walls surrounding it. There, he entertained models, friends and associates from the fashion business and other sometime-Miami area residents Sylvester Stallone and Madonna.

Tom Austin, who writes the "Babylon" column for the glitzy Ocean Drive magazine, said the interior was "an over-the-top palace" that included a huge shower, "big enough for 10 people to share simultaneously." Austin said Versace shared the house with a longtime companion, Antonio D'Amico, who handled licensing of Versace accessories, a live-in estate manager, and a chef. Family members also stayed there.

According to friends, the designer often went to Miami Beach to relax and never feared for his safety there, often strolling alone on the beach. The mansion was just one of four opulent houses owned by Versace, whose business empire is based in Milan. The other houses are in New York City, Milan and Lake Como in northern Italy. The news of Versace's murder stunned the fashion world and his clients, including the princess of Wales. A Buckingham Palace spokesman said Diana was "devastated at the loss of a great and talented man."

The editor of Vogue magazine, Anna Wintour, recalled, "When I'd go to visit him in Miami, he'd be at that newsstand first thing in the morning." She called the bearded and graying Versace "one of the most passionate men I have ever known. . . . There was something larger than life about Gianni, about the way he lived and worked. . . . The fashion world will miss him."

The slaying occurred as Versace completed his daily three-block walk to the News Cafe, a 24-hour restaurant and newsstand. A hostess, Stephanie Vanover, said he came in about 8:20 a.m., paid $14.89 for four magazines -- Entertainment Weekly, People, the New Yorker and Newsweek -- and left, passing up his usual cup of coffee.

Vanover said she noticed that Versace varied his routine today by walking to the cafe on the east, or ocean side, of the street, passing the restaurant, and then doubling back.

"He walked right past me," she said. "He was wearing a black shirt. With white shorts, I think. He always wears black, and sunglasses. He was carrying a set of keys in his hand. He used to come every morning for breakfast, but not anymore. He is always quiet, and doesn't speak unless you speak first."

Shortly after the shooting, which occurred about 9 a.m. on busy Ocean Drive, the beachside park across the street from Versace's palatial residence was jammed with the panoply of beach denizens -- artists, models, weight-lifters and beach bums -- who arrived on skates, bicycles and scooters. Some of them wore or carried a variety of animals, from reptiles to birds, including a monkey named Chipper on a lime-green chain and a bejeweled Chihuahua named Nina in a bike basket.

"I was so lucky to know the guy," said Jamie Cardona, a shirtless and sunglass-wearing former model, as he leaned his bike against a sea grape tree across from the mansion. "We would go to restaurants, to the movies. He is very caring. He was friends with celebrities and with normal people.

"This compares to {former Beatle} John Lennon's death," said Cardona, who said he counted himself among Versace's friends, having modeled for him and worked parties for him at the house.

Cardona added that the designer often said, in broken English, "I adore Miami."

Versace (pronounced Ver-SAH-chay) was born Dec. 2, 1946, in Reggio Calabria in southern Italy. He went to Milan in 1972, where after working for other designers he unveiled his own label in 1978. Over the next two decades, he became, along with Giorgio Armani, Italy's leading ready-to-war designer. Today, there are some 300 Versace boutiques around the world, with 40 in the United States including stores in Chevy Chase and Tysons II Galleria, according to company officials, and they produced sales of about $563 million last year. The designer, like others, had recently branched out into other areas and his signature Medusa head adorned everything from buttons and buckles to housewares. Versace was open about his homosexuality and experimented with a homoerotic esthetic, especially in his menswear, advertising and coffee table books.

Of all the ready-to-wear collections shown in Milan, Versace's was perhaps the most anticipated. Giorgio Armani's presentation was sure to be elegant and tasteful. Gucci's would be sexy. Others would be filled with information about upcoming trends. But Versace's show was about celebrities, drama, supermodels, sex and daring. He understood that fashion was about more than clothes, that it was connected to the art world, film, music and architecture.

Prince created a soundtrack for one of the designer's shows, as did singer Boy George.

Celebrities flocked to his shows and he filled his front rows with them. Patti LaBelle, Luther Vandross, Elton John, Mike Tyson, Lisa Marie Presley, Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn, Hugh Grant, Kyra Sedgewick, Ice-T and a host of others have all turned up at his presentations. Madonna and Stallone were clients as well.

Versace came to Florida about six years ago, when he opened a boutique in the high-fashion Bal Harbor Mall, a few miles north of here. Soon his designs were reflecting the shapes and colors of South Beach's restored Art Deco district. He opened a second shop in the heart of that district. Both shops closed after today's crime. Around the world, the designer's other shops also closed.

Versace came from a close family that has been part of his business. His brother Santo Versace runs the financial end of the family company. His sister, Donatella Versace, has been called his "muse" and in recent years had taken over design duties for his less expensive Versus collection.

Versace's murder was the second in recent years to rock the Italian fashion world.

In 1995, Maurizio Gucci was gunned down as he walked into his office building in Milan, Italy. Gucci's ex-wife, Patrizia Reggiani Martinelli, was charged with ordering the murder of her former mate, and four others also were arrested. She remains in jail but her lawyers contend she should be hospitalized as a mental patient. Gucci, 36, was the grandson of the founder of the firm that bore the family name.

Washington Post staff writers Robin Givhan and William Claiborne and special correspondent Catharine Skipp contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Italian designer Gianni Versace told friends he felt safe at beach.

CAPTION: The oceanfront villa of fashion designer Gianni Versace is ringed by crime scene tape after he was fatally shot at the gate by a lone gunman early yesterday in Miami Beach.

CAPTION: A Miami Beach police officer emerges from the home of Italian designer Gianni Versace, who was shot to death in front of the house earlier in the day.

CAPTION: A Miami Beach canine unit searches an alley near the parking garage where a red pickup truck, which may link the suspect to the killing, was found.

CAPTION: Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Barreto talks to reporters.

CAPTION: Police in Miami Beach examine scene at the gated entrance to Gianni Versace's recently renovated historic villa. (Photo ran in an earlier edition)

CAPTION: In Rome's Spanish Square, models react to news of Versace's death after rehearsal for a fashion show was stopped.