The Assassination of Gianni Versace: Fact-checking Episode 3, ‘A Random Killing’

Photo: Matt Dinerstein/FX Networks.

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 the grisly third episode, “A Random Killing.”

What They Got Right

The Lee Miglin murder
“The Miglin murder was always the thing that made the murders come alive,” says Yanez. “Before that, I don’t even remember having any knowledge that there was a guy who killed two other men, but with Miglin, he was well known. This was somebody prominent in the community of Chicago. Things changed after Miglin. People are really looking for Cunanan now. This is not just a guy killing people he knows. Now he’s a spree killer.”

How Cunanan killed Miglin
The degree to which Miglin and Cunanan were acquainted and/or lovers remains a point of contention (as you’ll see below), but the grittiest details of Miglin’s final moments ring true. In a 1997 Washington Post interview, a medical examiner summed up that there was no indication of “ritualistic torturing” of the Chicago businessman’s body. And though the use of a cement-mix bag to crush Miglin’s ribs may have seemed a bit on the nose, it apparently was one of his weapons of choice.

The car-phone mistake
“It’s the first example of the police kind of blundering,” Yanez says regarding Chicago and Philadelphia cops’ failure to track down Cunanan via the pinging car phone in Miglin’s Lexus. (Though in fairness, the FBI was arguably more guilty of dropping the ball later on than Miami PD.) “I remember the beeping phone. That came out at the time.”

The Sky Needle
We couldn’t confirm whether Cunanan burned the design specs, or if Miglin had bragged to Andrew about his passion project, but Lee was indeed working for years on a looming Chicago skyscraper he dubbed the Sky Needle. (The name intended, no doubt, as a rebuke of Seattle’s Space Needle, much as its height would have eclipsed Sears Tower.) Alas, Miglin’s plans to develop the world’s tallest building were thwarted by a weak Chicago office-space market, and those honors now belong to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Marilyn Miglin’s reaction
It’s impossible to confirm whether Miglin’s cosmetics-queen wife had suspected all along that Lee was gay. But according to Yanez, the rest of Judith Light’s embodiment of the widowed millionaire scans as on-point. “It was always, ‘We don’t know who this person is. He was a complete stranger. He wouldn’t have known [Cunanan] that way. He wouldn’t have called anyone like that to the house.’ They never allowed the notion that this was someone that he knew.”

What They Took Liberties With

The Miglins’ ties to Cunanan
There has been speculation for years, even from the FBI, that Miglin (and perhaps even his son, Duke) had some kind of ongoing relationship with Cunanan. But as reporting at the time asserted and Yanez explains, “It was never confirmed. The Miglin family played a role in keeping his private life private. The same way whether [Cunanan and Versace] knew each other or not — you can’t really get a grasp on it — it was the same way with Miglin. That was all part of the Cunanan lore.” Still, Yanez confesses that it’s enticing to wonder aloud, “I don’t know how he would have known Miglin, but then again, how did he find him so quickly in Chicago?” (For what it’s worth, the Washington Post observed that Miglin’s home was only a few minutes from the neighborhood’s main nightclub district.)

The William Reese attack
In one “Random Killing” sequence, Andrew pulls into a New Jersey state park, gun in backpack, anxiously ready to ditch Miglin’s Lexus and carjack an innocent victim. That all checks out. But what’s curious is the episode’s suggestion that he initially descended on an older woman, only swerving when William Reese showed up in his red pickup truck. “That’s artistic license,” Yanez insists. “We do know the murder of convenience is Reese. That somebody had said, ‘Oh, he almost carjacked me,’ no, nothing like that. I guess they’re just trying to show how randomly he picked Reese.”

Cunanan’s visit to a Versace store
There’s no doubt that Andrew swept through New York between murdering Miglin and making his way to Miami. It’s laid out in detail — down to his having attended movie screenings of Liar Liar and The Devil’s Own — in the FBI files (see: pages 322-323). But nowhere has any official account included an indulgent tour of Versace’s namesake Manhattan boutique. “Yes, he had gone to New York, but it was very brief,” Yanez says, adding that bogus calls and dead-end leads notwithstanding, “there was never any actual sighting of him except for what the phone showed.”

William Reese’s final words
As the show did with Gianni Versace in the premiere episode, it appears to have fabricated Reese’s last utterances for dramatic effect. Reese did indeed leave behind a wife, Rebecca, and preteen son, Troy, though whether he begged to be reunited with them is something only Cunanan could have known. In an unfortunate twist, Troy — who appeared on-camera for a Dateline interview just last spring — was recently arrested on charges of criminal intent to commit involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child under 16, statutory sexual assault, unlawful contact with a minor, and criminal use of a communication facility. “I’m sure Cunanan’s responsible in some way for that,” Yanez laments.

ACS Versace: Fact-checking Episode 3, ‘A Random Killing’