The Assassination of Gianni Versace: Fact-checking Episode 6, ‘Descent’

The second season of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story anthology series, titled The Assassination of Gianni Versace, explores the titular designer’s brutal 1997 murder at the hands of serial killer Andrew Cunanan. We’re walking through all nine episodes with Miami Herald editorial board member Luisa Yanez — who reported on the crime and its aftermath over several years for the Sun-Sentinel’s Miami bureau — in an effort to identify what ACS: Versace handles with care versus when it deviates from documented fact and common perception. The intention here is less to debunk an explicitly dramatized version of true events than to help viewers piece together a holistic picture of the circumstances surrounding Versace’s murder. In other words, these weekly digests are best considered supplements to each episode rather than counterarguments. Below are Yanez’s insights — as well as our independent research — into the veracity and potency of events and characterizations presented in episode six, “Descent.”

What They Got Right

The tension with Norman Blachford’s friends
In “Descent,” one particular friend of Norman’s named David Gallo (and yes, that’s SNL alum Terry Sweeney in a rare onscreen appearance) sizes Andrew up as trouble and corners him for a lecture. In real life, reports emerged as soon as May 1997 — prior to Versace’s death — that some of those close to Blachford had misgivings about Andrew. We couldn’t verify whether Gallo himself was based on a specific person who cornered Andrew at the La Jolla mansion — or if he’s a stand-in for many onlookers’ sentiments — but we’ll score this one in the credible column.

The L.A. weekend with David Madson
By all evidence, Andrew did seem to spend a lavish few days in Los Angeles with David not long before he unraveled. “Cunanan would treat people to fancy things like that, and he had done something like that with David,” Yanez recalls. “Friends mentioned that, and I think friends were in on that visit too. That was part of his lifestyle back then.” In fact, one brief section of the FBI’s dossier on Cunanan (see: page 50) confirms he stayed at Hollywood’s famous Chateau Marmont hotel for nearly a week and made many calls to Minneapolis — where Madson lived at the time — during his stay. It’s difficult to prove with total authority that David was with him, although the bill Andrew is shown to have racked up in “Descent” — $2,742.72 — is, according to the FBI investigation, entirely accurate.

Cunanan’s time at Flicks
As has been noted in previous fact-checks, the Flicks nightclub in San Diego was one of Andrew’s regular San Diego haunts. In “Descent,” he’s shown, well, descending further into addiction and desperation while buying drugs and boring bartenders at the club. This lines up with Yanez and her colleagues’ reporting back in 1997. “That he had a regular spot was on the radar, and that’s where we got a lot of information,” she says. “From the people that frequented that bar. They knew more of [Cunanan] than anybody else, regulars from that bar.” Yanez acknowledges that any anecdotal accounts were taken “with a grain of salt,” adding, “but then, Cunanan was so hard to get a grasp on. If you knew his real story, it was very different from what these people were saying. We’d start saying things like, ‘According to friends, Cunanan told them that …’ You couldn’t really give a fact as a straight-on fact, because he was such a storyteller and a liar. You had to quantify it and qualify it.”

Cunanan’s master bedroom
The one thing Andrew didn’t lie to David about over lobster was his way of finagling privileged accommodations even as a child. In 2009 for the San Diego Reader, a former neighbor and friend posted a fascinating anonymous diary of sorts detailing her relationship with Andrew. In it, she specifically mentions how he occupied the master bedroom in his house. (His mother, MaryAnn, supported this story in a rare 1997 TV interview.) She also recounts how, after the Cunanans scaled down to their Rancho Bernardo apartment, the lone TV was located in Andrew’s room. “He grew up with a sense of entitlement and showed contempt for those more successful than he,” the anonymous acquaintance wrote, echoing the common perception.

The drug addiction
Yanez can’t say for certain when, exactly, Andrew was preoccupied with one drug versus another, but concedes that — if anything — his addiction went underreported as part of what fueled his spree. “When we started looking into San Diego, there was talk of the drug use,” she says. “But that’s an interesting point, because I don’t think we considered it enough at the time. We should have given it more input that he was someone with an addiction. At the time, it was ‘a gay guy killing people,’ it wasn’t ‘a gay guy with a drug habit’ … When he gets to Miami Beach, there were sightings of him trying to buy drugs at the clubs.”

Thrifty pharmacy
Norman’s investigation into Andrew was spot-on, including Cunanan’s time as a Thrifty pharmacy clerk in San Diego. That’s affirmed in the San Diego Reader blog, the FBI files, and New York Times interviews with police, among other sources. You won’t find that particular storefront there any longer, but if you’re ever in and around Rancho Bernardo, you can still snag some “Thrifty” ice cream. At Rite Aid.

What They Took Liberties With

Miglin and Madson in La Jolla
While Yanez found the prospect of Lee Miglin, David Madson, and Jeffrey Trail having crossed paths titillating, she can only offer that she and her peers “never connected that in that way.” Orth’s own reporting on the birthday bash depicted in “Descent” quotes a friend of Trail’s talking about how Andrew persuaded Jeff to wow Norman by saying he was a highway-patrol instructor — not dress up in Naval attire to impress David. The San Diego Reader also published scuttlebutt about Norman having thrown Andrew a lavish beachfront birthday party at his home. No one, however, has seemingly ever implied that Lee Miglin was in attendance, let alone posed for a photo alongside two of Cunanan’s fellow future victims. And when interviewed by the FBI (see: page 104), Norman — despite redactions, it is fairly plain he is the subject — explains that he knew neither Madson nor of any connection between Cunanan and Miglin. If anything, Miglin’s appearance could be foreshadowing further examination of (entirely unproven) rumors that Cunanan was familiar with Lee’s son Duke, then an aspiring actor. Still, we will confess that a photo featuring several unidentified persons and mentioned in page 101 of the very same FBI documents piqued our interest.

The final visit with MaryAnn Cunanan
Andrew’s mother was definitely living in less-than-glamorous conditions in her San Diego neighborhood, and most certainly was in denial about her son’s state of mind. In the aforementioned 1997 interview for the TV show Hard Copy, she referred to him as a “saint,” alleged he was executed by the Mafia, and invoked her faith by exclaiming that he was “free in heaven.” But there’s no evidence that points to Andrew having sought solace with MaryAnn for one final, brief stay before snapping and endeavoring on his murder spree. Likewise regarding whether he submitted himself to a maternal sponge bath and berating about his body odor. “I think they hadn’t seen him for a while when he went on his spree,” Yanez says. “They’re trying to make a point there that he’s kind of like her. He’s not what she’s thinking she is, but she’s created this vision that he’s successful and going along with it, kind of like he does.”

The break-in at Blachford’s house
Some scenes in The Assassination of Gianni Versace are more transparently for effect than others. It’s not a stretch to imagine Andrew, broke and strung out, banging on Norman’s glass doors after trying to force his way into the home, as Norman threatens to call the police. In truth, per the FBI files (page 100), Norman — once again, despite redactions, it’s clear he is the interview subject here — attests that Andrew never attempted to reconcile and the two would only bump into each other at the occasional social event. And that they last spoke when Cunanan made a conciliatory phone call — from Minneapolis.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: Fact-checking Episode 6