The Assassination of Gianni Versace: Fact-checking Episode 4, ‘House by the Lake’

Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX/Copyright 2018, 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 fourth episode, “House by the Lake.”

What They Got Right

The killing spree beginning in Minneapolis
“When Versace’s killed and we know right away it’s this guy named Andrew Cunanan, we start going backward too,” Yanez recalls of her and her colleagues’ reporting at the time. “We find out it all begins in Minneapolis, and it was confusing because these two guys are friends of his. Things began to be pieced together and also got kind of discombobulated. We found out that [Jeffrey] Trail had been the first, and then the [David] Madson thing, it was always, ‘Did he go with Cunanan voluntarily and then something happened?’ His murder was always confusing. Was he a Patty Hearst or was he really forced the whole time? But once Versace was killed, we pay attention to those Minneapolis murders.”

The police making homophobic assumptions
Yanez remembers how police and investigators were susceptible to stereotyped hunches because Cunanan, Trail, and Madson were gay. “The fact that they were gay murders plays a role,” she says, “because basically you could say this was a domestic dispute, a lover’s triangle.

Cunanan’s motive
“Everybody that he kills, they always had something that he aspired to,” Yanez says. “I think he liked the life Madson had. He was going up in the world, and so was Trail. Miglin was rich and well-known and Versace was famous and adored. He went and killed people who had things he wanted. Once these two people who he saw as his road to that turned his back on him, he killed them.”

A case of mistaken identity
Police on the scene in Madson’s loft (which, incidentally, was located at 286 North 2nd Avenue, not 837 as depicted in ACS: Versace, and was already an infamous locale) did indeed believe Trail’s body to be David’s initially. “At first, we all heard everybody thought the murder victim was Madson rolled up in the carpet,” says Yanez. “And then it was like, ‘Oh no, it’s the other guy.’ [They were] trying to figure out how it all fits — ‘So the victim doesn’t live here, and the person who lives here is missing, and then there’s another person.’ The whole thing was very confusing for police, and the story from Minneapolis was changing.” Ultimately, a telltale duffle bag with Cunanan’s information set investigators on the right path, although the delay in uncovering that evidence still haunts the real Sergeant Tichich. “It was kind of embarrassing to me,” he told CBS Minnesota in 2017.

Trail’s tense relationship with Cunanan
Reporters spoke with Jeff’s older sister, Candace Parrott, not long after his death, and she confirmed that Cunanan had become something of an intrusive presence, though he was too nice to simply discard him. A mutual friend of Cunanan and Trail’s added to the L.A. Times that Jeff was leery of Andrew after a falling out. Parrott also mentioned Cunanan’s physical emulation of Trail, which might explain their similar sweats-and-jeans attire in the episode. Even though, as the Star Tribune details, Trail was actually wearing a flannel and navy T-shirt at the time of his death.

Cunanan’s tall tales about Mexico
Yanez backs up the idea that Cunanan was alleged to have run drugs across the Mexican border, as he claims in this episode. “We did hear he had done that to make money,” she says. Cunanan definitely had steroids on him at the time of Trail and Madson’s murders, and friends of Cunanan’s told the Star Tribune that he’d bragged about being involved in the testosterone trade. Though, as Yanez cautions, “You can never really nail down anything he’d ever done, illicit or normal.”

Madson’s broken buzzer
It was true that Madson or someone else in the loft had to head downstairs and let visitors in. According to the Star Tribune, he simply never programmed the buzzer to do as it was intended, that it was merely “a running joke among his friends. Someone always has to go down to the lobby.”

What They Took Liberties With

Trail and Madson’s relationship
“In real life, it’s implied. In the show, it’s sort of, ‘He knows about us,” offers Yanez regarding Trail and Madson’s potential romantic connection. Trail was also seriously involved with Jon Hackett, his boyfriend at the time, who happened to turn 22 that tragic Sunday. But Star Tribune’s January 1998 report confirmed that, anecdotal reports aside, Trail and Madson were only known to be acquaintances.

Cunanan and Madson’s road trip
The suggestion in “House by the Lake” is that Andrew and David were on the road for several days, with David kept captive by force but also hesitating to escape on at least one occasion. Some details of that account roughly scan: The two were supposedly spotted at a bar, though the establishment’s owner told the L.A. Times that they had lunch on an outside deck, as opposed to watching Aimee Mann perform (but you knew that) inside at night. And the journey did end with Cunanan brutally killing Madson beside a lake with bullet holes in the back, face, and right eye. But the actual doctor who performed Madson’s autopsy believed he was slain far sooner. Adding to the confusion was a parking receipt found in Madson’s car from a Chicago garage dated April 30. “I remember [them] going back and forth,” Yanez says of the mystery receipt and debate over whether Cunanan and Madson had traveled to the Windy City and then back to Minnesota. Equally unclear is whether Cunanan traveled to Minneapolis in the first place with premeditated murders on his mind. “The sense was they were spontaneous,” Yanez remembers. “He’d never killed before, so something happens. It’s some sense of betrayal that makes him snap.”

Prints the dog
For whatever it’s worth, Madson’s dog was a Dalmatian according to both neighbors’ and families’ accounts. Though per the Star Tribune, Madson and a man believed to be Cunanan were spotted walking Prints together after Trail’s murder, and Madson was noted to be acting strangely.

Madson’s private life
Neither Madson nor Trail was necessarily out to all their loved ones, but “House by the Lake” conflates the two men to form an empathic composite embodied by Madson. “We thought he was openly gay,” Yanez recounts about Madson. “Here he struggles with it, it’s a big conflict in his life.” In fact, by the mid-’90s, Madson had already done considerable work in, and given lectures on, AIDS education and advocacy as both a graduate student at University of Minnesota and after academia. Meanwhile, Trail’s sister shared with People that Jeffrey — a military veteran — was reluctant to come out as gay to his parents after struggling to feel comfortable with his sexuality.

Who spotted the body?
Madson’s co-worker Linda was at the scene when Trail’s body was found, but when CBS Minnesota revisited that day with both Linda and building manager Jennifer Wiberg last year, it was revealed that Wiberg first happened upon Trail rolled up in the bloody carpet. “There was blood all over,” she told the radio station. “I remember seeing dark hair sticking out of the top of the carpet, later mentioning that it didn’t look like David’s hair.”

ACS Versace: Fact-checking Episode 4, ‘House by the Lake’