Andrew Cunanan grew up in San Diego, California who seemed to be on his way to success. He was the youngest of four children and considered to be the white sheep of the family. When he was in the third grade, Cunanan had an IQ of 147, making him incredibly bright for his age. As a teenager, he was accepted into The Bishop’s School, which was considered one of the top college preparatory schools in the country. After graduating high school, he enrolled at the University of California-San Diego, where he majored in American History. Cunanan seemed to be on his way to success. So how did a bright student end up becoming a spree killer? I believe his traumatic upbringing, rejection by loved ones, hatred towards the gay community, and obsession of becoming rich and famous contributed to his demise.
Upbringing and First Betrayal
Andrew Cunanan was born on August 31, 1969, in National City, California. While growing up, his parents told him that he’s more special and deserving than others and that someday he will be rich and famous. His parents were subservient and submissive to his needs so he can have the high-class lifestyle they wanted for him. They bought him a sports car, gave him the master bedroom, and let him have his own bathroom (Pearson et al., 2018). However, his parents’ marriage deteriorated after his mother, Mary Anne, suffered chronic depression due to the verbal abuse from his father, Modesto. Andrew coped with the trauma at home by telling classmates outlandish tales of his perfect life and bragging about how rich his family is. Fantasy played a role in helping Cunanan cope with the domestic problems he was having at home. He would read novels, comic books and tell tall tales about how perfect everything was with his family (Crime & Investigation, 2009).
In 1988, when Cunanan was 19, his world was shattered after his father abandons the family. Modesto, a stockbroker, fled to the Philippines after being suspected of embezzling $100,000. He took almost all the money the family had and sold the house from under them (Cipriano, 2019). During the same year, Cunanan spent more time partying at gay clubs, which his mother disapproved of. During an argument with his mother over his gay lifestyle, he threw her against a wall and dislocated her shoulder. In 1989, Andrew dropped out of school and moved to the Castro District of San Francisco, a center for LGBTQ culture.
I think that Andrew’s violent behavior against his mother was due to social learning through observing his father abuse his mother. Social learning theory suggests human behavior is “based on learning from watching others in the social environment. This leads to an individual’s development of his or her own perceptions, thoughts, expectancies, competencies, and values.” (Bartol & Bartol, 2021, p. 106). By observing abusive behavior from an authoritative figure, he grew up learning that aggressive behavior was acceptable against his mom and probably against others.
I also think Modesto abandoning the family traumatized Andrew, which may have contributed to his pathological lying as a way to cope with rejection. Some pathological liars lie in order to gain sympathy (Cipriano, 2019). In addition, after observing the verbal abuse his mother endured and the depression she suffered, Cunanan coped by lying to others about how rich his family was and creating a fantasy world for himself. However, his stories became so unbelievable that he was known to be a pathological liar (Mantziou, 2006). Cunanan also lied about his poor social background and true identity so he can associate himself with wealthy older men in the gay community and live the high-class lifestyle he wanted.
Obsession With Being Rich and Famous
While in college, he focused on targeting wealthy older gay men at nightclubs and parties in California so they can provide for him as sugar daddies. He hid his poor social background from these men and created a false identity of wealth and privilege. He was obsessed with being accepted in high society and by wealthy people, even if it meant lying about his true identity. He also spent time selling himself as a prostitute targeting older and wealthy gay men and developed a good reputation among them. He was known to idolize Gianni Versace since he was a rich and famous gay man with a luxurious lifestyle. Cunanan claims to have met Versace in San Francisco, although this has not been confirmed.
Rejection By Loved Ones
In 1995, Cunanan identified himself as Andrew DeSilva to Norman Blachford, who was a wealthy gay man, and the two later moved in together. Blachford supported Cunanan by buying him a car and gave access to his credit cards so he can buy whatever he wanted (Pearson et al., 2018). However, in 1996, Blachford ended their relationship when he tracked Cunanan’s spending habits and discovered that he was not Andrew DeSilva, the son of a pineapple plantation owner he claimed to be. By this time, Cunanan lost his most supportive sugar daddy and no longer living the luxurious lifestyle he wanted.
In 1996, his boyfriend David Madson broke off the relationship with him, crushing Cunanan. Madson was someone Cunanan loved very much, but Madson wanted nothing to do with him. Cunanan’s friend, Jeffrey Trail, also broke off his friendship because he was tired of Cunan’s lying and erratic behavior. At one time, Cunanan asked Trail to join him to sell drugs, but Trail refused (Kosin, 2018) Both Madson and Trail moved away from Cunanan and relocated to Minneapolis, which devastated Cunanan.
Cunanan has experienced abandonment by people he loved to include his father, sugar daddy Blachford, ex-boyfriend Madson, and ex-friend Trail. These multiple rejections may have traumatized Cunanan, leading him to feel depressed, insecure, lonely, and vulnerable, which paved the way for his killings.
Hatred Towards Gay Community
In 1997, Cunanan believed he was HIV positive and expressed his fears to a counselor. However, an autopsy on Cunanan proved that he did not have HIV. After believing he may be infected, it’s possible he may have developed a hatred towards wealthy gay men for doing this to him. This hatred may have been part of why Cunanan targeted Gianni Versace since he symbolized the successful gay celebrity.
In April 1997, Cunanan traveled to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to meet with Trail and Madson to discuss rekindling their relationship. However, they have no intention of getting back together with Cunanan. On April 27, 1997, Cunanan called Trail to come over to Madson’s apartment and when Trail enters, Cunanan beats Trail to death with a hammer in front of Madson. Madson and Cunanan stay in the apartment for two days.
On May 3, 1997, Madson’s body was found on the shore of Rush Lake in Minnesota. They were at the shore talking inside Madson’s jeep when Madson jumped out of the vehicle and ran away. Cunanan shot him in the back, turned him over, and shot him in the head.
On May 4, 1997, Cunanan drove to Chicago, Illinois, and killed Lee Miglin, a prominent real estate developer. Cunanan bound Miglin with duct tape, stabbed him 20 times with a screwdriver, then cut his throat with a hacksaw (Dibdin, 2018). After the killing, Cunanan took Miglin’s Lexus and drove to New Jersey.
On May 9, 1997, Cunanan killed William Reese, a caretaker at a cemetery in Pennsville Township, New Jersey. Cunanan took William down to the basement and shot him in the head. It was believed that Cunanan killed Reese just so Cunanan can take his truck since the Lexus was being tracked by the police through its phone.
On July 15, 1997, Cunanan killed Versace in front of his mansion in Miami Beach, Florida. Cunanan shot Versace twice in the head with the same pistol he used to kill Madson and Reese. Afterward, Cunanan ran away to a nearby parking garage.
On July 23, 1997, Cunanan committed suicide. There was a massive manhunt with about 1,000 agents looking for Cunanan throughout the country (Dibdin, 2018). He hid in a houseboat and shot himself in the mouth with the same pistol he used to kill Madson, Reese, and Versace.
Jealousy seemed to play a big part in some of his murders. Not only was Cunanan hurt after being rejected by Trail and Madson, but he was also jealous of them. They were both successful professionals, while Cunanan’s career was not. In fact, Cunanan never really held a steady job since he survived off of sugar daddies and as a prostitute. Plus, their families accepted their homosexuality, but Cunanan’s family did not. Cunanan was also jealous of Versace, who was seen as an icon for the gay community. Versace was a rich and successful gay celebrity, which is what Cunanan wanted to be but could not. Due to the rejection and jealousy of these individuals, it’s possible this is why Cunanan killed them. However, some believe that Cunanan killed Versace in order to gain fame and notoriety by killing a celebrity. So even if Cunanan could not be rich and famous through legitimate means, at least he’ll be famous for killing Versace.
Spree or Serial Killer?
A number of psychologists consider Cunanan a spree killer, while others categorize him as a serial killer. Which one was he? A serial murder is one where one or more individuals kill two or more victims in separate events (Rousseau, 2021). Criminologists have used three or more victims to define serial murders, while the FBI lowered the victim count to two or more. The time between serial murders, called the cooling-off period, is usually months or years but may also be days or weeks (Bartol & Bartol, 2020, p. 342).
On the other hand, a spree murder is one where three or more individuals are killed without a cooling-off period, which normally occurs at two or more locations (Bartol & Bartol, 2020, p. 344).
I would consider Cunanan a spree killer mainly because he does not fully meet the definition of a serial killer. He did kill two or more victims in separate events with a cooling-off period since he stayed in Miami for two months before killing Versace. However, serial murders are premeditated and planned, and the offender usually selects victims with specific characteristics such as age, hair color or occupation (Bartol & Bartol, 2020, p. 344). In most serial murders, there’s a similarity in how the victims are killed. However, for Cunanan’s murders, there is no pattern. He killed Trail with a hammer out of rage and Madson by pistol after he ran away. Miglin was tortured to death while Reese was shot simply over his truck. Versace’s murder was planned and premeditated, but the other murders seemed more like targets of opportunity, which is why I would identify him more as a spree killer.
Was Cunanan a Psychopath?
Cunanan never underwent a psychological evaluation so we may never know for sure. However, he did exhibit some behavioral features of a psychopath but not all. Cunanan has been described as glib and superficial since he used his charm and good looks to seduce older gay men. He was also an entertaining conversationalist who told unlikely but convincing stories about himself in a positive light believing that the world revolved around him. He exhibited early behavior problems since he started pathological lying at an early age by claiming his parents were rich and telling outlandish stories about himself, which continued as he got older. He was known as an intelligent con man. He was a chameleon since he was a master of disguise and deception. Not only could he change his outer appearance, but he used different names. For each of his murders, he showed little remorse or guilt and showed a lack of empathy. He lacked responsibility since he never held a steady job. All the money he received was from his parents, sugar daddies, and prostitution.
Based on his characteristics, I would say he possibly suffered from antisocial personality disorder (APD). APD is a disorder characterized by a history of continuous behavior in which the rights of others are violated (Bartol & Bartol, 2020, p. 210). This term is used by mental health professionals to describe “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others, occurring since age 15” (Bartol & Bartol, 2020, p. 210). This definition is followed by seven additional criteria, any three or more of which must be met, such as repetitive lying, impulsiveness, and disregard for the safety of others (Bartol & Bartol, 2020, p. 210). Cunanan was impulsive with his killings, a pathological liar, and had no regard for the safety of others. In addition, while APD by definition always involves criminal behavior, not all psychopaths are criminal, and not all criminals are psychopaths (Bartol & Bartol, 2020, p. 210). Cunanan exhibited criminal behavior with his murders which ranged from bludgeoning Trail with a hammer, to torturing Miglin and shooting Madson, Reese and Versace. Based on this definition, Cunanan probably satisfies the criteria for APD.
As a child, Cunanan was told by his parents that he will grow up to be rich and famous and that he was more privileged than others. He also grew up traumatized watching his father abuse his mother, which led to him creating fantasies for himself and developing a reputation as a pathological liar. He was overly obsessed with being rich and famous, even if it meant lying his way up the social ladder so he can live a high-class lifestyle through wealthy sugar daddies. Cunanan ended up believing he contracted HIV, which led to him later developing a hatred towards the gay community. He was also the center of attention wherever he went and couldn’t accept rejection. However, he was rejected multiple times by people he loved, which led to his killing spree.
After murdering multiple people, he planned his final kill against Versace with the intent of turning into somewhat of a celebrity himself. By murdering someone rich and famous, this made him feel important. The act of taking a celebrity’s life dampened the pain of his reality, which was that his boyfriend rejected him, his father abandoned him, and he never became a member of high society, which has always been his dream. Versace’s life represented everything Cunanan hoped to be but was not. By taking Versace’s life and committing suicide after, this made Cunanan feel empowered and assured his place in infamy since he will be remembered forever as Versace’s killer.
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