The Assassination of Gianni Versace: Fact-checking the Season Finale, ‘Alone’

Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX/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’ve been 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 has been 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 season finale, “Alone.”

What They Got Right

The Manhunt
For however law enforcement fell short of corralling Cunanan after his previous four killings, Versace’s death brought out all the literal big guns (and helicopters and so on). “It was an out-and-out manhunt like you would see in a movie,” Yanez recalls. “Everybody was very nervous. It was checkpoints, tips coming in. It was intense. I don’t think it’s ever been as intense as that week was for looking for somebody in south Florida.”

Andrew Cunanan’s suicide
While the premiere featured a potential inaccuracy in precisely how and where Versace was shot, “Alone” plays it straight with Cunanan’s fateful moments. Despite a recent ABC News retrospective that suggests Andrew shot himself in the chin, numerous reports — most notably, that of the Dade County Medical Examiner — verify that he placed the gun directly into his mouth and pulled the trigger.

The houseboat
The idea that Cunanan stumbled on a bottle of expensive Champagne while he squatted wasn’t implausible (though that particular item was absent from the FBI’s inventory, ditto for dog food), as the houseboat’s owner, German businessman Torsten Reineck, reputedly enjoyed the finer things. Reineck, who was in some legal trouble overseas, never attempted to rehabilitate his Miami property, which eventually began to sink due to damaged plumbing. As Yanez reported back in ’98, the “dangerous eyesore,” as she put it then, was demolished. Today, Yanez can confirm that Cunanan left Reineck’s houseboat a wreck, and that Andrew was essentially filthy and unshaven as seen in “Alone.” “In fact, he left it a bigger mess than what they show,” she says. “He really trashed it up. There’s food containers, that area where he was taking care of that wound. The way he looks — that dirty underwear — that’s to a T.” The one detail added for effect, she adds, was Andrew putting a bullet hole through the TV.

The houseboat’s caretaker
Sort of. Fernando Carreira, who looked after Reineck’s ocean-moored property, was understandably spooked by the sound of a gunshot after entering to check on a possible intruder. Though given Cunanan’s desperation, it was probably wise for the then-72-year-old Portuguese caretaker to bail and call the police. As Carreira — who briefly sank his reward money into an ill-fated entrepreneurial effort, the legacy of which lives on via eBay — noted in a recent interview with Sun-Sentinel, “I thought the shot was for me.” Or for that matter, his wife, who was with him at the time, even if she didn’t make it onscreen in “Alone.” But by and large, Carreira’s crucial involvement went down as depicted, unless you want to split hairs over the ease with which he removed his .38 from its holster.

Marilyn Miglin’s reaction
While seething at the FBI’s failure to bring down Cunanan, Lee Miglin’s cosmetics-magnate widow Marilyn Miglin could only refer to Andrew as “that man.” And per a Chicago Tribune profile on Marilyn in April 1998, she indeed could only muster pronouns in lieu of properly uttering his name.

Mispronouncing Cunanan
If Marilyn couldn’t even breathe “Cunanan,” much of the police and media had their own struggles saying it right — a fact that, as “Alone” implies, was yet one more blow to Andrew’s hopes for household fame. “That was true too,” says Yanez. “Everybody was saying Cunanan in a different way.”

Andrew’s wig
At one point in “Alone,” Andrew passes an FBI poster of himself featuring several possible likenesses, one of them with what appears to be a blonde wig. “Yes, that is true,” Yanez says (and it was, as you can read here). “There was a point where they were saying he liked to dress like a woman, and there were posters that did show him looking like a woman.” One can assume this was included to underscore the kinds of stereotypes that law enforcement trafficked in while pursuing him.

What They Took Liberties With

The houseboat’s address
By all accounts (see: here, here, and here), Reineck’s infamous houseboat was located at 5250 Collins Avenue, yet “Alone” references the address more than once as being at 54th and Collins. This discrepancy is strangely consistent with Assassination of Gianni Versace’s MO when it comes to residences: As noted in earlier fact-checks, the precise address for both David Madson’s Minneapolis condo building and the notorious Normandy Hotel deviated slightly from what was scripted. A best guess would be an effort by producers to protect the privacy of those locations’ current occupants, even if the show may compel more people to seek them out.

The near encounter on another boat
Cunanan is widely believed to have boat-hopped before finding his ultimate hideout in Reineck’s house. “Alone” zeroes in on one such stop, during which Andrew comes virtually face to face with the boat’s owner, who rushes out and urges her husband Guillermo to call the cops. Yanez notes, “There had been incidents of somebody pilfering food and breaking into places, that people found something and something was askew and they called the police. But we never knew exactly if that had been him.” One of those people was purportedly Guillermo Volpe, who owned a small sailboat called the Maru and told cops he found evidence that someone —maybe Cunanan — had slept in there and stolen a novel, and that he later spied Cunanan reading said novel nearby. Interestingly, a paperback book titled Hawaii was among the items FBI agents claimed from Reineck’s home. However, the suspenseful scene of Guillermo’s wife getting within steps of a trigger-happy Cunanan? That is, seemingly, a fanciful exaggeration.

The stolen Mercedes
We could not conjure, nor could Yanez recollect, anything to support Cunanan having stolen a woman’s white Mercedes, only to turn around and bail on the car after hitting a police checkpoint. If anything, the scene somewhat mirrored Versace’s opening stroll down the beach that opened this season, in addition to communicating the manhunt’s escalation and how Andrew was effectively trapped. Not to mention, he always did allegedly daydream about wanting to own a Mercedes.

The media coverage
There was absolutely a swarm of newspaper and magazine writers in and around Miami Beach that whole week, as well as outside Reineck’s houseboat the night Cunanan’s body was brought out on a gurney. As Yanez recalls, “There were reporters from Italy, Japan, Sweden. The media was a huge pack, and it was astounding, the reaction to his murder, the nerve it touched.” But she does point out one wrinkle the show missed. “They don’t touch on this at all, but there was a great confusion at the end,” she explains. “Earlier in the day, we hear there’s somebody at the houseboat and everybody goes over there. And then the police came out, after they had this standoff and there was a shot heard, and said, ‘No, there’s nobody here.’ So a lot of the media left, and then they called us back and said, ‘No, it’s him. He’s here.’ So there was some weird confusion.” As it happens, reports from the time back up Yanez’s recollection that police were initially coy after the SWAT team was deployed (and per the FBI dossier, they did flood the houseboat with tear gas). “There was a first thought that the gunshot that the caretaker hears is [Cunanan] killing himself,” Yanez continues. “But the caretaker at first says, ‘He fired at me,’ but there might not have been evidence of that later on. It was a mess that night. Maybe they wanted to notify the Versace family first and didn’t want to tell the media. We were there all day.”

Andrew’s call to his father
Yanez had never heard of any call being placed from Cunanan to his dad in the Philippines as police closed in, nor were we able to corroborate any such conversation between them. It’s even a stretch for “Alone” to capture Andrew readying a passport for exile abroad, since FBI deputy director William Esposito told media that Cunanan did make a mystery call — to a friend (whom, enticingly, he would not name) whom he hoped could secure him a passport. Supposedly, the FBI only found out about the correspondence after interrogating other individuals who ran in Cunanan’s circles. Regarding Modesto’s attempts to exploit Andrew’s name, those were covered in last week’s roundup.

Marilyn’s news conference
Apart from the Chicago Tribune interview mentioned earlier, Marilyn rarely spoke publicly about her husband Lee’s death. One exception was an emotional press conference shortly after his murder in May 1997, an event that “Alone” repositions to coincide with Andrew’s waning days on the houseboat, the beginning of a This Is Your Life–style series of televised pieces vivifying the pain he’d brought to victims’ loved ones and his own, including his long-suffering mother Mary Ann. We were unable to unearth footage of David Madson’s father Howard as portrayed on a news program, though he was vocal after news spread of Cunanan’s suicide. Yanez reflects generally on how hard the Madson family tried to “clear his name, [that] he was a victim too, not a co-conspirator. But with Cunanan’s death, that was left hanging.”

Antonio’s suicide attempt
It is true that Antonio was more or less exiled to Lake Como by the surviving Versaces, allowed to live in one of the homes controlled by the company but otherwise estranged. And in an interview with the Guardian, he acknowledges having entered a lengthy depression. He stops short, however, of saying that he tried to kill himself in the immediate aftermath of his lover’s death. According to those close to Antonio, the loyalty of friends like Elton John helped him through the grieving period.

ACS Versace: Fact-checking the Season Finale