Gianni Versace's Cold-Blooded Murder Outside His Mansion — 20 Years Later: 'There Was Extraordinary Pain'
It’s been 20 years since Italian design icon Gianni Versace was gunned down by a serial killer on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion, Casa Casuarina, in Florida on July 15, 1997.
Much has changed in the decades since Versace became the final victim of Andrew Cunanan’s multi-state murder spree. But some things endure — chief among them, perhaps, Versace’s name and the fashion empire that bears it.
“He has a legacy that’s still vibrant, and that’s the true test of somebody’s greatness,” friend Hal Rubenstein told PEOPLE earlier this month. “You still think of him. And that’s pretty glorious.”
The circumstances of Versace’s slaying — a morbid, sudden end to a glamorous global life — continue to exert a pull.
“It epitomizes Miami Beach, for many people. It was the confluence of celebrity, a spree killer of dubious origin, some failings by the police. It has something for everyone,” former homicide prosecutor Michael Band, who worked on the case told the Miami Herald. “And Versace lives on — his brand did very well. People recognize the name.”
Versace, 50, was returning home to his mansion that July morning when he encountered the 27-year-old Cunanan, who had already killed at least four other people.
What happened between them remains unclear, but Cunanan almost immediately opened fire on Versace, fatally shooting him twice in the head, before fleeing. Cunanan later killed himself on a houseboat as authorities closed in.
The case, which has generated years of attention, will be featured in the next season of Ryan Murphy‘s anthology drama American Crime Story, on FX. Starring Darren Criss, Penelope Cruz, Ricky Martin and Edgar Ramírez, as Versace, it is set to air in 2018.
‘There Was Extraordinary Pain’
The broad-daylight slaying rattled both the fashion world, where Versace was a star, and his closest relatives, who worked alongside him at his eponymous Italian fashion house, which he founded in Milan in 1978. His brother, Santo, ran the company, while sister Donatella designed the Versus line and served as his muse.
“They were an exceptionally close family, particularly Donatella and Gianni,” a family friend told PEOPLE in July, “and … the loss of someone who was the undisputed leader, the undisputed vision, the undisputed creative force and eccentric leader of this incredibly passionate and emotional family, there was extraordinary pain.”
Santo stayed on at the company as CEO as Donatella stepped in as its new creative voice and debuted her first collection as chief designer less than six months later.
“The fact that this company is basically successful and still existing 20 years later — some of that credit has to go to that lady,” Rubenstein said. “She was strong.”
Still, the family’s continuing success could not diminish the loss at its center.
“I miss my brother very much,” Donatella reportedly said at that first show. “I wanted to run away, thinking about coming out here without him.”
“I met them several years [after Versace’s death],” the family friend told PEOPLE, “and … it took several years for the pieces to settle and for the family to deal with the reality of what had happened — both personally and professionally.”
‘We’re Never Going to Know — Never, Ever’
After Gianni’s death, his Florida home was “a place of mourning,” Versace Mansion General Manager Chauncey Copeland told PEOPLE.
“It was a daily parade of people putting flowers where he got shot, which was on the right side of the main stairwell into the mansion just outside the gates,” Copeland said.
As Gianni’s life endured, so did the mystery around his death: What made him the target of a serial killer?
“It was the case of a lifetime, but to this day, we don’t know why it happened,” retired detective Paul Marcus, who was one of the case’s investigators, told the Herald. “I think Cunanan wanted to go out with a bang, and what better way to go out with a bang than killing an international figure? But we’re never going to know — never, ever.”
That question is not all that people think about when they think about Versace.
Today, Copeland said, his mansion — now a hotel — is the third-most photographed residence in the United States, behind Elvis’s Graceland and the White House: “All day long it’s non-stop. Hundreds and thousands of people stop and take pictures, inquire about Gianni Versace often.”
He continued, “People still see it as a famous place harking back to Gianni Versace, more celebrating his life than his death.”
• With reporting by MACKENZIE SCHMIDT