July 07, 1997 12:00 PM

HE WAS A CHAMELEON: A PREPPY in a polo shirt one day, the next, an ascot-wearing European aristocrat. Andrew Cunanan, the 27-year-old San Diego gigolo who charmed older men into supporting his extravagant lifestyle, tried on identities as easily as other people change hairstyles. Over the years he posed as an aspiring actor, the successful owner of a building-materials company and the scion of a wealthy family with sugar plantations in the Philippines. On April 24, just eight days before Cunanan disappeared, he told a group of friends over dinner, “Everyone has their own version of what they think I am. Nobody really knows the truth.”

Until now, perhaps. According to his friends, Cunanan’s latest role is his most unexpected—that of an alleged spree murderer, whom the FBI added to its 10 Most Wanted list on June 12. Despite a nationwide manhunt now entering its third month, Cunanan remains at large. He has been charged with one murder, the May 2 shooting of a former lover, Minneapolis architect David Madson, 33, and is being sought for questioning in connection with three others: the fatal bludgeoning of close friend Jeffrey Trail, 28, the torture and murder of Chicago millionaire Lee Miglin, 72, and the shooting a week later of William Reese, 45, a cemetery caretaker in southern New Jersey, whose red Chevrolet pickup Cunanan may have stolen as a getaway car. Despite a trail of clues, the FBI remains hampered by one crucial obstacle: Andrew Cunanan’s constantly changing appearance. Says Agent Bob Long, a spokesman in the FBI’s Chicago office: “Looking at the pictures of Cunanan [from] the past year and a half…you could almost think you’re looking at a different person.”

By all accounts, Cunanan had long felt different—and increasingly estranged from the life into which he was born. Pampered and precocious, he grew up in San Diego, the youngest of four children of Modesto Cunanan, 67, a retired Navy career officer turned stockbroker, and the homemaker wife, MaryAnn, 58, Modesto later abandoned. “If he could have been born into a royal family, I thought it would have been best,” a close relative told PEOPLE, citing Cunanan’s taste for luxury. His intelligence also set him apart. He read the Bible at 7, an entire set of encyclopedias by 14, and eventually taught himself Spanish, according to the same relative. In turn his parents indulged him, giving him a new Nissan 300ZX for his 16th birthday and sending him to the exclusive Bishop’s School in La Jolla. Cunanan, who made no attempt to hide his sexuality, was “pretty well liked,” says classmate Richard Caleel, 27, now a lawyer in Los Angeles, but he “put on airs.” In 1987, the year Cunanan graduated, classmates voted him Most Likely to Be Remembered.

Cunanan, of course, would prove them right. But his family was hardly typical either. According to legal documents later filed by MaryAnn Cunanan, Andrew’s father was facing arrest for allegedly pocketing $106,000 in a fraudulent business deal and fled the country, taking most of the family’s money. (Modesto’s whereabouts are unknown.) From 1992 to 1995, Andrew paid part of the rent (his father continued to send checks for the remainder) on a San Diego condo that he occasionally shared with his deeply religious mother, and he began selectively dating older, wealthy men.

“He was very articulate and informed,” says Nicole Ramirez-Murray, a gossip columnist for San Diego’s Gay and Lesbian Times. By the mid-90s, Cunanan had moved into the La Jolla oceanfront condo of millionaire businessman Norman Blachford, who reportedly supported him and took him on trips to Europe.

But within the past year, the high times began fading. The popular party boy, looking decidedly less svelte than in his early 20s, was sharing a $795-a-month apartment in San Diego’s funky Hillcrest district. Still, in the area’s gay bars and nightclubs, Cunanan remained a social lion with a trademark bellowing laugh. “He liked to be the center of attention,” says George Kalamaras, manager of a Hillcrest restaurant where Cunanan continued routinely to treat friends to dinner. Yet according to his roommate, waiter Erik Greenman, 24, Cunanan’s days were empty: he read, strolled idly and smoked cigars, then hit the bars every night after watching Jeopardy! Finally, with his credit cards maxed out at $25,000, Cunanan announced in April that he was moving to San Francisco after “taking care of some business” with a friend in Minnesota.

What kind of business, he didn’t say. On Friday, April 25, David Madson drove to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to pick up Cunanan, whom he had dated briefly before breaking off the romance in 1995. According to friends, Cunanan was still smitten, but Madson had come to distrust him. “He thought Andrew was a little shady, secretive,” says Laura Booher, 30, who worked with Madson. “David didn’t want to be alone with him.” That night, Madson took Cunanan out for drinks with friends, including attorney Monique Salvetti, 30. When she talked to Madson by phone two days later, he told her that Cunanan had given him a gold Cartier watch—a gift that Madson, who was pushing Cunanan to do something productive with his life, considered “a bit much,” she says, but “so Andrew.”

That day, April 27, Cunanan allegedly left a voice message inviting Jeffrey Trail—a friend from San Diego who had recently moved to the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington—to Madson’s downtown loft. Neighbors describe hearing a late-night argument. There, on April 29, Trail’s body was found, wrapped in a rug, with a claw hammer they believe to be the murder weapon and Cunanan’s gym bag, which had .40-caliber ammunition inside. Cunanan and Madson had stayed in the apartment those two days. Though Madson failed to go to work and contacted no friends, the two men were seen walking his Dalmatian, Prints. (Madson’s family believes he was held captive.) Then the pair disappeared. On May 3 two fishermen spotted Madson’s body at East Rush Lake, 60 miles north of Minneapolis. He had been shot three times—with a .40-caliber pistol.

Three days later, police in Chicago found Madson’s missing red Jeep Cherokee parked near the Gold Coast townhouse of Chicago real estate developer Lee Miglin, whose mutilated body was partially wrapped in masking tape. A week later, Miglin’s green Lexus turned up at a remote military cemetery near Pennsville, N.J. The body of William Reese was found in the basement of a historic lodge.

Since then, the FBI has investigated hundreds of Cunanan sightings nationwide. Meanwhile, friends and family are left terrified—and baffled. “He was introduced to people of wealth and became accustomed to a certain lifestyle,” says a relative. “And it escalated to where he’d do anything to stay in the group.” Says Monique Salvetti of the man she had found cultured and charming: “I can’t imagine what demons are plaguing him.”


MARGARET NELSON in Minneapolis, JOANNE FOWLER in Chicago, SCOTT LAFEE in San Diego and JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington

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