The versace killing: Men in black herald the end for Cunanan

Phil Davison tells how he joined Miami police for a slow assault on America's most wanted man

It was a far cry from the SAS, more of a slow-motion assault. But it had the desired effect: America's most wanted man, alleged killer of Gianni Versace, was found dead, his face blown apart by a single gunshot.

The official version: killed by his own hand, using the .40 calibre pistol he allegedly used to murder the fashion designer eight days earlier. Not everyone believed that version. It didn't seem to fit the character of the man who had appeared to be teasing police and basking in the publicity, some said.

When Florida police got a tip-off that a man resembling suspected gay serial killer Andrew Cunanan was on a river houseboat, they opted against rushing in. Instead, they sweated it out for four hours, tossing in a cellular telephone and calling on him to surrender. In all probability, he was already dead.

It was shortly before 4pm on Miami Beach, on the main Collins Avenue thoroughfare which links the city with Fort Lauderdale. The square two- storey houseboat was berthed on what they call Indian Creek, a canal-like waterway across the avenue from the beach and its high-rise condominiums. It also happened to be across the road from my apartment.

The first thing I heard was the clatter of helicopters, from the Miami Beach and Florida police and four local television stations. Police had blocked off the avenue, but a detour along the beach, over a fence and through a basement brought me opposite the houseboat alongside a heavily- armed Swat team from the Dade County police. They were not happy to see me but there was nowhere left for me to go.

"Get down. Stay down," one of the officers told me as we huddled behind a low wall. "The houseboat was supposed to be unoccupied, but a caretaker who went in to clean it said he saw an intruder, a young white male fitting Cunanan's description, and heard at least one gunshot. The caretaker's OK , we don't know who was shooting at who, or whether the suspect is still in there. But we're going in."

They did it painstakingly slowly. Protected by black flak jackets from neck to groin, some carrying riot squad shields, armed with shotguns, M-16 automatic rifles or stubby machine pistols, dozens of Swat men ran across the avenue, between the palm trees, and took up positions on the quay. Some crawled on their bellies towards the ramp leading to the houseboat. Others squatted behind a red and white four-wheel drive parked beside the houseboat.

They maintained those positions for four hours, once tossing a cellular phone up the ramp towards the houseboat door. "Talk to us. Talk," I heard one Swat man shout.

There was no response. As time wore on, the policemen looked increasingly relaxed as though they believed there was no one inside, at least alive.

"Come out, come out now!" the lead Swat man yelled from behind a shield with a slit for his eyes. He repeated it several times, but there was no response. Just after 8pm, as the sun went down in that unique Miami pink, Swat men fired three bursts from what appeared to be tear gas grenade launchers. Then five more bursts, sending smoke up from a corner of the houseboat. That was when the lead man moved in, up the ramp, followed by five other officers in single file.

They pushed the door open and burst in. The houseboat had been shuttered, but the open door revealed that the place was lit. They moved around slowly, almost casually. Within minutes, I was allowed to move on to the avenue where a policeman's walkie-talkie crackled: "Negative on the initial search." Miami Beach police spokesman Al Boza showed up at the police cordon and told reporters: "It appears no one was inside."

Curious sightseers began to go home. But around 10pm, FBI Special Agent, Paul Phillips, showed up in dinner suit and bow tie and helicopters began whirling overhead. Miami Beach mayor, Seymour Gelber, told reporters that he believed Cunanan had been found dead inside. A police officer told me, yes, they had found a body after a second search and, yes, it looked like Cunanan. How they had missed the body on the first search, he did not explain.

On the street, people expressed relief but many expressed scepticism over the official version. Some wondered whether police may have shot Cunanan. I heard no shots other than the dull thud of what appeared to be tear gas grenades.

"Now we'll never know why he killed Versace, if indeed he did," said Antonio Avila, a cab driver based outside the Fontainebleau Hilton, a few hundred yards from the houseboat. "Still, he's off the streets. That's what matters. We can all breathe more easy now."

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