Investigative reporter Maureen Orth had a two-month lead on one of the biggest news stories of 1997--the murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace on the steps of his south Miami Beach home.
As a special correspondent for Vanity Fair, Orth had been writing an article on suspected serial killer Andrew Cunanan and his four victims when she heard the news--and quickly became part of it. Cunanan, the profiles of his victims and the locations of the murders struck her as unusual and newsworthy, she said.
Now she’s released a book, “Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History” (Delacorte Press), a 450-page tome detailing Cunanan’s twisted personality, the tangled investigation and the high-intensity media coverage.
A day after Versace’s murder, Orth appeared on the “Today” show with the first of her revelations.
“I had found out in the course of my research that [Cunanan] and Versace had met in 1990 at the opera in San Francisco. I had two eyewitnesses who said they had seen them together,” said Orth, during a recent telephone interview.
The account was notable, she said, because “of all of Andrew’s pathological lies, at least he wasn’t making it up about having met Versace.”
Orth’s assertion helped change the course of the investigation and put her solidly on the media map. She had the book deal within days of the TV appearance and a movie deal with Warner Bros. shortly afterward.
“I became part of the story myself. No one knew who Andrew Cunanan was,” Orth said, early into her eight-city book tour that follows Cunanan’s life and his murder spree through San Diego, Minneapolis, Chicago and Miami.
Through many chapters of interviews with those who knew him, Orth describes Cunanan as a pathological liar, a hustler, a drug abuser and dealer who nevertheless charmed numerous wealthy, older gay men. (Cunanan was 27, Versace, 50.)
Cunanan lived his early years as the indulged, bright child of dysfunctional, materialistic parents.
“Under tremendous pressure from them,” she writes, “the gifted little boy was never able to form a coherent adult personality. The more I learned about him, the sadder it was to see how drugs and illicit sex increasingly coarsened his instincts, how prostitution on many levels eventually left him lazy and unprepared.”
Orth, a fourth-generation Californian who now lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, NBC News Washington bureau chief and “Meet the Press” moderator Tim Russert, and their son, Luke, is still making news. Her book claims that Versace was HIV positive, which the Versace family has repeatedly denied. During the manhunt, police were testing a theory that Cunanan killed Versace in revenge for transmitting AIDS to him. Orth quotes the lead Miami Beach detective on the case, Paul Scrimshaw, who said: “I had to know whether Gianni Versace was HIV positive or not, and I was able to find out from autopsy results that he had tested positive for HIV.”
But as it turned out, according to the medical examiner, Cunanan was HIV negative.
Versace wasn’t Cunanan’s only high-profile victim--he also brutally murdered Chicago real estate developer Lee Miglin. In both cases, Orth spotlights the corrupting influence celebrity and the media can have on justice.
“The rules change when wealth and power come in,” she said. “People who have secrets to hide or images to protect, all of a sudden, the lid goes down.”
And the price of information goes up.
When Orth contacted parents and classmates of the exclusive private school Cunanan attended, she said she was shocked to find that they had become part of the news-for-hire circus.
“I remember calling a couple of people who asked, ‘What are you going to pay my daughter to speak?’ ” Orth told them she doesn’t pay sources. “They said, ‘My daughter has nothing to say,’ and slammed the phone down.
“Everybody had their hand out. It wasn’t just the usual street people you would expect to want to be paid,” she said. She also found that the FBI wasn’t able to interview some people because the sources were too busy appearing on TV programs.
Orth’s research took her places that, her book shows, authorities largely overlooked.
“I found all kinds of evidence that had previously not been reported,” she said, noting, for example, Versace’s use of male prostitutes.
More important, however, are the broader themes she says investigators overlooked while tracking Cunanan--the impact of his homosexual lifestyle and his use of methamphetamines, or crystal meth.
“I happen to think that Andrew’s drug use was pertinent to his disintegration and his rage,” Orth said. Cunanan displayed the typical effects of crystal meth abuse--including depression, paranoia, meanness and more.
“He was doing crystal meth and cocaine at the same time, and Demerol and morphine to come down. He was in a depressed state, gaining weight, losing his looks,” Orth said.
Cunanan’s fascination with violence emerged as an addiction to graphic pornography and an increased participation in sadomasochism, Orth learned from bar owners and Cunanan’s friends.
“I believe all of these things really coarsened him and allowed him to become very violent at a certain point. Violence just became much more a part of his life, much more than it might have otherwise,” she said.
Orth maintains that what became the “largest failed manhunt"--Cunanan committed suicide on a Miami Beach houseboat before he was found--involving more than a dozen law enforcement agencies might have been more successful if investigators had acknowledged the effects of his drug use. She also said a “natural antipathy” between the gay community and police hampered the investigation, as clues and contacts that could have helped were never pursued.
The oversights, combined with the pressures of celebrity and intense media coverage, converged in a post-O.J. Simpson era and put a chilling effect on the investigation, Orth said.
“All these prosecutors are so freaked out. They demand much higher standards of evidence now. They do not wish to be . . . humiliated the way the Los Angeles district attorney’s office was in the O.J. case. They now demand much more thorough processing. The police were so mired in their processing and their procedure--that’s why they wouldn’t let the public know Cunanan was a suspect for the first 12 hours after Versace’s murder, and they knew within an hour or an hour and a half,” she said. Earlier public notice could have helped apprehend Cunanan, Orth said.
The Cunanan case is closed, but its impact lingers.
“I hope the book raises a lot of issues that get more airing,” Orth said. The relations between police and the gay community are improving in its wake, she said. But the human issues are more difficult, she said, noting that some parents in the case learned their children were gay when they also learned they were murdered.
“It was sad how much reluctance there is [for children] to tell parents [they] are gay. And drug abuse in certain parts of the gay community has to be dealt with more honestly,” Orth said.
Failing that, Orth said her book has simpler goals: “I hope it’s entertaining and fun to read.”