7/28/97

A search for clues to a killer's spree

Gianni Versace's murder heightens the mystery of how the suspect chose his victims

BY SUSAN HEADDEN AND LINDA KULMAN

An Italianate landmark on Miami's art-deco South Beach, Casa Casuarina has hosted some of the city's most opulent parties. The villa, renovated by celebrated fashion designer Gianni Versace, enchants visitors with its stained-glass windows, exotic ornamental shrubs, and glittering pool. Beyond the fruit-shape finials that adorn its high stucco wall stretches the wide white beach. A pink volleyball court is adorned with a rainbow flag--the banner of gay pride.

Casa Casuarina defines a world in which a charming, literate gay man by the name of Andrew Cunanan might easily have fit. Instead, the elusive suspect in last week's brazen slaying of Versace appears to have twisted his obsession with wealth and status into a four-month murderous rampage over four states. At week's end, Cunanan, 27, was being sought in the killings of as many as five victims, whom he may have chosen in some perverse revenge against the good life he craved but could never seem to attain.

To anyone who knew Cunanan, the narcissism that typically brands a serial killer was plain to see. But some psychologists say this highly intelligent suspect betrays the breed in other respects. Serial killers commonly have a signature, a pattern to their madness. Cunanan's alleged victims, on the other hand, include a former lover, a Chicago real-estate mogul, and a cemetery worker killed for a truck. There are differences in the murder methods, too: One victim was slashed with a garden saw and wrapped mummy style in the kind of act of domination favored by serial killers. By contrast, Versace was shot point-blank in the back of the head.

Some forensic experts place the suspect in a subcategory of multiple murderers known as "spree killer"--a cross between a mass murderer, such as Charles Manson, and a serial killer, like Jeffrey Dahmer. Definitions of spree killing are as varied as the opinions on whether Cunanan really is one. But experts agree on this: While serial murderers methodically plan each attack and "cool off" in between, spree killers act in passion and at a more feverish pace. Serial killers may go about their business, murdering on the side. Spree killers make homicide a full-time job.

Acquaintances say that Cunanan, a flamboyant, gregarious impostor who was "kept" by wealthy older men, had changed recently: He gained weight, neglected his hair, and ran up bills he had no visible means of paying. To some, the suspect brings to mind spree killer Christopher Wilder, a handsome race-car driver who killed a string of fashion models in 1984. The suspect also shares traits with Charlie Starkweather, who littered the Northern Plains with bodies, including the family of his 14-year-old girlfriend.

Selfish motives. Serial or spree, the hallmark of the multiple murderer, experts say, is selfishness. "Whatever point [the killers] are trying to make . . . is more important than the lives they take," says forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz, an FBI consultant. Cunanan's point, if he is guilty, is the subject of wide speculation. Was he enraged over a rejection by his lover? Was he troubled by his father, who fled to his native Philippines after being indicted for business fraud? Was he HIV positive? In Versace, experts surmise, the suspect may have seen an icon of the gay community.

Some experts believe serial murder, in whatever variety, is on the rise. The fact that it has a distinct label and its own gruesome "hall of fame" has given serial killing an evil glamour that may make it something for garden-variety murderers to strive for. And those killers can be surprisingly competitive. "Once they are captured, they're very interested in where they stand. They want to be told that they're the best," says Dietz.

As local and federal agents swarmed over South Florida in a massive manhunt, the likelihood of a deadly repeat performance sent chills through gay communities nationwide. The edginess could be felt from New York's Hamptons, where Cunanan was seen circulating last summer, to the suspect's hometown of San Diego, where his former roommate is under FBI protection. Officials advise caution in straight communities as well. "It's a fugitive problem," says Robert Ressler, a former FBI psychological profiler. "The next person he kills . . . could be just a guy he needs a car from. This guy has no pattern."

With Linda Robinson in Miami and Katia Hetter

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