EXPERTS: VANISHING EASY IN FLORIDA

July 24, 1997
By CURTIS MORGAN Herald Staff Writer 
Memo: GIANNI VERSACE SLAYING IN SOUTH BEACH 

He could be in another city, another country or hiding down your block. Andrew Cunanan could be anywhere.

 The only thing authorities know for sure is that a suspected serial killer lived quietly in Miami Beach and frolicked loudly on South Florida's gay scene for two months and now seems to have simply vanished, despite massive media exposure and a manhunt that ranks among the largest in state history.

To the public, the fact that an infamous sociopath could pass undetected for so long is unsettling. To experts, it isn't surprising -- particularly with South Florida's shifting population of tourists and transients.

 ``Miami's a good town for this,'' said Brian McGuinness, a veteran Miami private investigator. ``I don't think it's a huge trick to blend into the landscape.''

 In fact, South Florida is such a great place to turn ghost that Kenn Abaygo, author of Advanced Fugitive: Running, Hiding, Surviving and Thriving Forever lists it as a top destination for the desperate.

 ``It's excellent. As a matter of fact, in Advanced Fugitive, I recommend Fort Lauderdale. All of South Florida is excellent for urban evasion,'' said Abaygo, a Plantation resident published by the niche house, Paladin Press, known for controversial guides like Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors.

 A week after the brazen slaying of designer Gianni Versace, authorities continue to publicly profess the belief Cunanan remains in South Florida. But that amounts mainly to a presumption police and federal agents must go on until solid leads point them elsewhere.

 Some investigators on the case believe he fled immediately. Mike Marquez, a Miami Police detective who has spent the past week fielding phone tips, says, ``If he's any kind of smart, he's out of here. There are 400 agents out looking for him. He's in the kitchen and there's a lot of heat.''

 But even with the heat, experts outside the case agree, it's not unusual that Cunanan could hide in plain sight with relative ease -- either here or on the run. He has a lot going for him, from where he lived to his lifestyle to his looks.

 The neighborhood around the Normandy Plaza Hotel, where Cunanan paid cash for his $36-a-night room, is packed with similar hotels and condos, clean but cheap. With a revolving supply of working-class residents and tourists, Cunanan's behavior -- in all day, out all night -- didn't raise an eyebrow.

 He depended on the same social dynamics that make South Florida a magnet for fleeing crooks and scammers, says McGuinness, the private detective. ``It's not like small-town America where people talk about the new stranger.''

 Before the Versace killing, Cunanan, despite national publicity and status on the FBI's most wanted list, openly mingled in gay clubs from South Beach to Fort Lauderdale -- apparently without a single patron recognizing him.

 Many new faces

 George Mangrum, Miami bureau chief for the gay-oriented magazine Scoop, finds that understandable as well. With South Beach an international tourist destination for gays, there are so many new faces that its hard to be recognized -- even for those who work hard at it.

 ``It's a very different attitude here. It's friendly but it's blase about other people's lives. It's a very self-centered town,'' Mangrum said. ``It's the same reason Gianni Versace felt like he was able to go unnoticed.''

 Experts agree another factor working for Cunanan is his appearance. With a pleasant but bland face, Latin-like coloring and medium height and build, he resembles the definition of average South Florida male.

 That makes disguise a relatively easy matter. Miami Beach Police, who found women's underwear and hair clippers among Cunanan's possessions, issued a caution that he could be dressed as a woman. But even a baseball cap and glasses would serve him well.

 ``He doesn't have any outstanding physical characteristics,'' said Humberto Rapado, a special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and acting chief of the violent crimes squad, which hunts dangerous criminals.

 Human nature also works in Cunanan's favor, Rapado said. Despite the widespread publicity and the thousands of tips pouring in, most people simply don't believe they'd be the ones to spot a killer.

 Probably lying low

 Whether he's in South Florida or elsewhere, he likely is lying low now, says Peter Smerick, a retired FBI agent who specialized in criminal profiling. ``He's probably watching every program that comes on and reading every newspaper that's available.''

 He could be alone or have enlisted help -- from a friend or lover here or elsewhere or by threat. His potential hiding places range from houses to houseboats. He could have fled on anything from bike to bus to stolen boat, even a rusty freighter to Haiti. Bogus IDs are a breeze to acquire and with a credit card, it's also simple to drive from Miami to say, New Hampshire, without ever even showing your face to a gas clerk -- just slide a credit card into the pump.

 On the wilder side, author Abaygo said, Cunanan could even blend into with the homeless, a technique he advocates in his book. ``It's remarkably easy to do,'' said Abaygo, who says he is a former government operative trained in evasion tactics. ``When was the last time someone checked into a homeless shelter and was asked for identification?''

 Abaygo also likes South Florida for other options, including the Everglades, but he doubts that move for Cunanan. ``He's very much an urbanite. He'd be uncomfortable heading out of Miami into the Everglades.''

 Outcome unpredictable

 The likelihood, experts say, is that some serious mistake by Cunanan or tip from the public will eventually nail him. The notion that agents can predict the actions of deranged killers like chess masters plot opponent's moves is a ``Hollywood type of situation,'' says Smerick. ``Unfortunately, real life doesn't work that way.''

 In real life, killers sometimes escape. Take Juan Fleitas, one of six killers who tunneled out of Glades Correctional Institution in January 1995. Fleitas slipped through a statewide dragnet.

 ``There are people who have been gone for a number of years,'' Rapado says. ``Then, there are people we've never heard from again.''

Herald staff writer Frances Robles contributed to this report.

Reprinted with written permission of The Miami Herald.