Mystery deepens after fatal siege

"All across the nation, our citizens can stand down and breathe a sigh of relief," was the verdict of Miami Beach police chief Richard Baretto. "The reign of terror brought upon us by Andrew Cunanan is over."

Cunanan, the suspected gay serial killer thought to have murdered the fashion designer, Gianni Versace, was found dead from a gunshot wound, apparently self-inflicted, after a police assault on a houseboat on Miami Beach.

Mr Baretto said at a dawn press conference yesterday that Cunanan, a 27-year-old Californian described as a high-flying homosexual prostitute, had been identified from a thumbprint which matched one he gave when he pawned a gold coin here before Versace's murder last week. He apparently panicked after a caretaker spotted him on board the houseboat on Indian Creek, alongside Miami Beach's busy Collins Avenue.

Police removed his body early yesterday and said a .40 calibre pistol, similar to the one that killed Versace and two of Cunanan's other alleged victims, had been found near his head.

It appeared Cunanan, America's most wanted man since the Versace killing, was already dead when a Florida police Swat team and FBI agents surrounded the houseboat, across Collins Avenue from the Atlantic Ocean on Wednesday afternoon. The caretaker reported hearing a gunshot and seeing an intruder, matching Cunanan's description, on board the two-storey floating home, which was supposed to be unoccupied.

After a four-hour siege and a barrage of tear gas, the Swat team moved in, just after 8pm. Initially, they said they found no-one inside. Then, after a second search, they announced at 10pm they had found a body. Only at 5am yesterday, more than 12 hours after the drama began, did Mr Baretto confirm it was Cunanan and that he appeared to have shot himself through the head.

Many people expressed scepticism at the police version, questioning how they could have missed the body on an initial search of a relatively small area.

Some speculated police may have killed the man suspected of the murder of Versace and four other men, but reporters at the scene heard no shots during the assault, other than the tear gas grenades. Police said they fired no shots.

The sceptics noted that Cunanan reportedly left no suicide note, despite the fact that he was known to have kept newspaper cuttings on his crimes and appeared to have basked in the publicity surrounding his alleged murders.

The police and FBI agents never looked totally tense during the "siege," suggesting they either thought no-one was on the boat or that whoever was on board was already dead. Several officers strolled around without cover within what would have been easy firing range of the boat.

Whatever the case, the bizarre ending to Cunanan's alleged three-month killing spree was likely to renew speculation that Cunanan was not working alone when he killed Versace. Those who believed that theory had predicted Cunanan would never be brought in alive. "Now we'll never know what really happened, why he did this," said Stanley Trail, father of one of Cunanan's alleged earlier victims, Jeffrey Trail.

Police said the houseboat, berthed around two miles north of the beach- front mansion where Versace was shot, apparently belonged to Thorsten Reineck, a 49-year-old German wanted in his own country for tax fraud. Some reports said Cunanan may have known Mr Reineck, who reportedly owns a gay health spa in Las Vegas. One report said that Mr Reineck had fled Miami after hearing Cunanan was in the area.

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