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Morbid

 
Grim walk: Versace Murder Tour offered

A tour operator’s latest venture, a tour of the Versace murder site, explores one of the most popular stops for South Beach visitors

Fri, Feb. 01, 2008
By TANIA VALDEMORO
tvaldemoro@MiamiHerald.com

It has become a ritual in South Beach. Tourists plant themselves -- if only for a moment -- in front of Casa Casuarina, Gianni Versace's former Mediterranean palazzo, and snap a photo.

It may be just another ''been there, done that'' moment, but tour operator Diego Caiola believes people are looking for more.

That's why he is launching the Versace Murder Tour, a two-hour walking tour of South Beach devoted to the life -- and murder -- of Versace, the renowned fashion designer who was gunned down outside his Ocean Drive mansion by Andrew Cunanan on July 15, 1997. Cunanan, a spree killer who only weeks before was put on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List, killed himself eight days later.

''People stop at the Versace steps and take pictures. But, they don't always know the history or what happened,'' Caiola says.

The new tour begins across the street from News Café, the designer's regular hangout at Eighth Street and Ocean Drive, and ends at the 13th Street garage on Collins Avenue. Cunanan went to the garage to drive away in a stolen Chevy truck after the murder but ditched that plan when he heard sirens.

On a recent Wednesday, Caiola led a new tour guide along the route. John Murphy, a snowbird from Boston who lives in South Beach, signed up to be a part-time guide after he saw an ad on Craigslist.

''I'm fascinated by the whole thing,'' Murphy said. ``I usually walk around Casa Casuarina four to five times a week.''

MISSING ANSWERS

At News Cafe, Caiola shows Murphy the Versace memorial at the back corner of the store. It has photos of the designer and his home.

''He loved to come here in the mornings when it wasn't crowded. He could find papers and fashion magazines from all over the world,'' he explains.

Inevitably, Murphy and Caiola muse over some familiar questions. Did Versace and Cunanan know each other? What was the motive for the murder? What was going through Cunanan's head?

''[Versace] was in the wrong place at the wrong time,'' Murphy declares after they reach the garage.

The excursion, which costs $15-$25, skips other sites: Versace's former store in South Beach; the Normandy Plaza hotel in North Beach where Cunanan stayed; and the defunct houseboat in Mid-Beach where Cunanan committed suicide.

''We're not really going to focus much on Cunanan,'' Caiola tells Murphy. ``The tour glorifies Versace.''

`HORRIBLE IDEA!'

Even so, some on the Beach cringe at the thought of a Versace Murder Tour.

Dona Zemo, a preservationist and longtime resident who works at the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce's Visitors Center, seemed shocked when asked if she would go on the tour.

``I'd never do that. What a horrible idea!''

Historian Paul George understands the allure of such a tour -- he hosts his own ''Mystery, Mayhem and Vice Crime Coach Tour'' for the Historical Museum of South Florida, which passes by Casa Casuarina -- but says it has to walk a fine line.

''People are interested in crime -- not so much in committing it, but in hearing about it,'' he said. ``Still, the tour could be interpreted as macabre.''

Caiola says he only has good intentions.

''I look up to Versace,'' says Caiola, who says he met the designer in 1990 while working as a 15-year-old attendant at the Fontainebleau Hotel, where Versace's family stayed. ``He worked his way up from the bottom and made it to the top.''

Representatives for Casa Casuarina, which is now rented out for private events, did not return phone calls for a comment.

POTENTIAL CUSTOMER

Outside Casa Casuarina, a new batch of tourists poses for pictures in front of the steps. When asked about the Versace Murder Tour, Brittany Cohen's ears perk with interest.

''It would definitely be something I'm interested in,'' says Cohen, of Cherry Hill, N.J. ``I want to know about the lifestyle he led in Miami Beach and the back story of his life.''

Ian Cassanova, from London, is less sure about the tour but says he understands its appeal.

''It's a bit like John Lennon and where he died,'' he says. ``The place makes people interested in him.''

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