Vulgar Favors, Maureen Orth's book about the murderous saga of Andrew Cunanan

The special correspondent for Vanity Fair set out on the trail in 1997

Maureen Orth, Vanity Fair reporter, was interviewed last month in the bar at the Hotel Del Coronado, where she was staying during a book tour.
  • Maureen Orth, Vanity Fair reporter, was interviewed last month in the bar at the Hotel Del Coronado, where she was staying during a book tour.
  • Image by Joe Klein

When Vulgar Favors, Maureen Orth's book about the murderous saga of Andrew Cunanan, hit the best-seller lists last month, a national audience was offered a sinister portrait of San Diego, far different from the image of dumb and innocent All-American beach town concocted by the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The wealthiest and most celebrated men in San Diego would not even go into a gay bar," Orth writes. She goes on to quote Joe Sullivan, "a former crystal-meth user who knew Andrew in San Diego," who describes a summer party circuit in La Jolla never written up by the Union-Tribune's Burl Stiff.

Gay Pride parade, Hillcrest, 1997. "You just party your brains out but by the way, maybe, oh well — I guess this guy tied me up, but, gee, maybe that wasn't so hot."

Gay Pride parade, Hillcrest, 1997. "You just party your brains out but by the way, maybe, oh well — I guess this guy tied me up, but, gee, maybe that wasn't so hot."

Sullivan "once answered an ad soliciting bartenders and waiters for a season of private dinner parties," Orth writes. "'The pay was great,' says Sullivan, who was told by the middle-aged businessman who interviewed him that the guests would be prominent local businessmen, some of them married. 'Everything sounded great until he brought out this picture book of some of the waiters and bartenders at these parties.' They were wearing G-strings 'with strategic holes placed in the G-strings,' and they were dressed up as bunny rabbits with genitalia as their noses.' The interviewer explained to a suddenly disinterested Sullivan that 'at the end of the season of dinner parties, a cash prize would be given for 'the best service.'"

Orth, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair who lives in Washington, D.C., set out early in the spring of 1997 to follow the trail of Cunanan, a suddenly infamous denizen of Hillcrest and La Jolla, then accused of killing ex-Navy Lieutenant Jeff Trail, Minnesota architect David Madson, and Chicago developer Lee Miglin. By the time Cunanan was found that July, in a Miami houseboat, dead of a reputedly self-inflicted gunshot to the head following his murder of designer Gianni Versace, Orth had become the nation's de facto expert on Cunanan and the motives behind his killing spree. She was interviewed last month in the bar at the Hotel Del Coronado, where she was staying during a book tour.

Andrew Cunanan's apartment (shared with Eric Freeman) on Robinson Avenue. "I called Bad Habits, and the clerk who answered the phone said, 'My good friend is very close friends with Andrew's roommate.' I made contact with Eric Freeman, who told me that Andrew delivered briefcases full of cash."

Andrew Cunanan's apartment (shared with Eric Freeman) on Robinson Avenue. "I called Bad Habits, and the clerk who answered the phone said, 'My good friend is very close friends with Andrew's roommate.' I made contact with Eric Freeman, who told me that Andrew delivered briefcases full of cash."

Potter: How did you find out about Andrew Cunanan in the first place?

Orth: I'll tell you what happened. I had absolutely no contacts here at all, even though I'm a native Californian and everything. I didn't know San Diego. I had seen this article in the Sunday New York Daily News about this high-flying social butterfly, and I was intrigued because of the victims and the places; you know, Annapolis graduate who had been in Coronado, a young architect in Minneapolis, and then rich guy -- you know, real estate guy in Chicago and this poor cemetery worker. I'm thinking Minneapolis, Chicago, San Diego, and then Southern New Jersey, Philadelphia. It was interesting. It wasn't just New York and L.A. and all that. And in the article it mentioned that he loved that he had this high-flying [lifestyle]. And I think I've mentioned one of the very first things I read mentioned the cigar store, Bad Habits, in Hillcrest.

I dialed the number. I got it out of information. I called Bad Habits, and the clerk who answered the phone said, "My good friend is very close friends with the roommate, with Andrew's roommate." I said, "You're kidding." And I made contact with Eric Freeman and I just got on the plane and came out here.

Mike Williams

Mike Williams

I read the Reader [story about Mike Williams, a friend of Cunanan victim Jeffrey Trail], because I had actually talked to Vivian Warren who was the ex-[Union-Tribune] editor's wife, and she was moving back to Washington and somebody in Washington suggested that I talk to her and she sent me the Reader. And I read it and I got in touch with Mike Williams and so that's how I started reporting for San Diego, and that was in May of 1997, about two to three weeks after he had committed the first murder, which was April 27.

Andrew Cunanan at Bishop's, 1987. When complimented on a red leather jumpsuit that he wore to a school dance, he told his classmate, "My boyfriend, Antoine, bought it for me."

Andrew Cunanan at Bishop's, 1987. When complimented on a red leather jumpsuit that he wore to a school dance, he told his classmate, "My boyfriend, Antoine, bought it for me."

So that's how I started and I started trying to talk to people who had gone to Bishop's with him, but that was a lot of closed doors. I never really paid too much attention to law enforcement because I always got the feeling right away that I knew more than they did. And so I started trying to find people that he knew. And I started talking to a lot of people in Hillcrest. And the people at California Cuisine...things like that. Then I went to Minneapolis and talked to the police there and started talking to people, close friends there. I got to know [San Diego gay activist] Nicole Ramirez Murray right away. I had gone to the Hole, to the Monday night, you know, this...what do you call it? I can't even think of it right now.

Nicole Ramirez Murray

Nicole Ramirez Murray

Potter: The wet T-shirt contest.

Orth: I went to the wet T-shirt contest and I went to Flicks. I just went to where Andrew went and talked to people who knew him. I mean, like the bathhouses. It took me months and months to cultivate certain sources. For example, I did finally get to the drug dealers that supplied Andrew with the crystal-meth. And that was a long process; people aren't going to give that up right away. And I had so many doors slammed in my face here because the well-to-do closeted people are surely not going to admit that they ever had anything to do with Andrew Cunanan. Bishop's School was shut down in the beginning. There were just a lot of closed doors.

Potter: You mention in the book that there was this dealer who was operating more or less out in the open in Hillcrest, and the police seemed to know nothing about it.

Orth: I talked to a couple of dealers, and I figured out how the deliveries were made, and I figured out that Andrew was probably part of a system. Eric had told me that he delivered briefcases full of cash, and Shane O'Brien told me that he had been with him when he'd gone into a particular store and he'd come out with a bag full of cash, and another person I talked to had seen him at the Brass Rail with a huge wad of cash. And he had asked people to walk down the street and pretend. I mean, it was just obvious, all over the place, that the guy was dealing, and when I heard that he was shooting up, and then I started studying more about crystal and how pernicious it is, and then the idea that you combine cocaine and crystal-meth -- plus you have a psychological instability running through the family history to start with. That's lethal. And then he's using, like, Demerol and working to come down. How high do you have to be to take that to come down?

Andrew Phillip Cunanan — FBI Wanted Poster

Andrew Phillip Cunanan — FBI Wanted Poster

The FBI here told me that San Diego has the third largest level of bank robberies in the country and half the people that rob banks are on crystal-meth. Here's San Diego, the crystal-meth capital of the world, and it's just so prevalent that it just goes on.

Potter: What about Cunanan's alleged relationship with Joe Wambaugh, the famous police-novel writer from Point Loma?

Orth: What I knew I put into the book. Which was purely what people had told me on the record that they saw Andrew go up to him at Mixx. Andrew's close friend, Robbins Thompson, told me that he was working on a house right next door to Wambaugh's, and it was a gated community very hard to get into, and Andrew could tell him the entire floor plan of the house. But Wambaugh could have had his house featured in [San Diego Home and Garden]. And I tried to find if he had. I couldn't, but I didn't know, so [Cunanan] could have read it and pretended but I always thought those comments [Wambaugh] made were -- he never said, "I don't know." [Instead], he would make these comments like, "I'll dust him" or "I've got this magnum. I'll dust him."

Potter: Did you ever talk to Wambaugh directly?

Orth: Um, no.

Potter: He wouldn't talk?

Orth: Trying to remember if I tried. Let me think. I tried to get ahold of his number. I know I got a number from somebody, but it wasn't a good number, and then I just went on. That's what happened.

Potter: In the book you mentioned this guy — who you didn't identify by name — a well-known San Diegan who fixes up dates with young San Diego men for older, visiting gay VIPs, a form of prostitution. Can you give us a general idea what that was all about?

Orth: It's a guy who has been doing this for a long time, and it's a favor he does for visiting firemen, and that Andrew was brought to him when he was very young and was presented to him as a potential person, as somebody who wanted that kind of work. And he didn't find him terribly appealing, but he had, over the years, taken care of him — I mean, been able to place him a few times.

Potter: The VIPs — you mentioned a congressman in the book. Were they from the political world primarily?

Orth: I didn't get the idea that they were just from the political world. I think they came from various parts. One of the things I learned is that there really is this incredible network across America where people are referred back and forth, and Andrew really just had this spectrum that he traveled.

Potter: What is that world all about? Who are the players generally?

Orth: I think that throughout America there are certainly wealthy men who are bisexual and probably predominately gay and get married, and they lead a secret life, and I think that this is a world of secrets, and Andrew traded in secrets, and a lot of his life was secret and covered up. And because people don't feel comfortable with their own sexuality, or they don't feel they can move comfortably with their sexuality, this closeted, covered-up, secret existence that so many people seem to play causes this whole parallel universe to occur that a lot of straight people have no idea about, and it's just something that I stumbled into and began to report.

Potter: But it sounds like this particular La Jolla world is somewhat rarefied.

Orth: I don't think the La Jolla world is rarefied. I think if you went to Hobe Sound in Florida or if you went to any kind of wealthy neighborhood... One of the older La Jolla men told me in the beginning, he said that one of the things that was different about gay society than regular society was that he had many friends from all walks of life -- they were young and old and they could be waiters or stockbrokers. He found it much more vibrant and interesting than having to sit around the country club with the rest of the people who were just like he was.

But then I realize that the common thread that's running through that is the idea of sexual favors. I mean "vulgar favors," although it does come from the libretto of the opera where Gianni Versace and Andrew met, is a complete metaphor for Andrew's life. He rendered favors and he received favors. And it was a world in which he would set people up. He did it with all the closeted officers from the Navy who came to town under "Don't ask; Don't tell."

One of the things I thought was very sad is that a lot of these really terribly attractive, intelligent men are so uptight and so in the closet that they're not only not associating necessarily with straight people, but they're not necessarily associating with gay people either, because they're afraid to be caught out in either direction. They're very lonely, and Andrew played on that, because he was the fixer.

And then he would put people together; he would gather groups together, and this would make him feel good and this would give him a sense of authority. And San Diego is a perfect place for it because it's "Don't ask; Don't tell" in the Navy. And it's conservative. So it's traditionally closeted, and it's not like San Francisco. There's so many young boys here who come from the Midwest because they couldn't handle San Francisco or Los Angeles. And the other part that I was sort of surprised to find was the exploitation of minors that occurs by some of these guys who are involved in drugs. Look at that guy I wrote about, Vance. He's in jail now. He's going to trial in April.

Potter: What's his last name?

Orth: Coukoulis. And describing his world to me where he has this dungeon and they bring these young kids in, and they're just out or they're just discovering their sexuality and suddenly they're these beautiful, young sort of bait for these older guys. And they're given drugs and then they are made non compos mentis, and then all this other stuff happens to them. It's just sheer exploitation of these kids; it just goes on and it needs to be dealt with. And so does the out-of-control drug epidemic in San Diego: crystal-meth.

Potter: How do you deal with the exploitation of the underaged ones that come to San Diego on the bus or a cheap airplane ride from somewhere else?

Orth: Well, I think you got to let the kids understand. I think it's a process of education that the kids need to understand that...I mean, if the prevailing value is that it's hip and it's cool, you know, to get wasted and then all these things happen to you, and this is the hot thing to go to these parties and this is what happens, if that's a prevailing attitude or you just party your brains out "but by the way, maybe, oh well -- I guess this guy tied me up, but, gee, maybe that wasn't so hot." You know what I mean? I'm not suggesting that this is the norm anymore than I'm suggesting that serial killers are the norm. But I'm just saying that this stuff goes on a lot more than I ever thought.

Potter: Is it the police's job to educate the kids?

Orth: I think the gay communities' leadership has got to take responsibility. They've begun to start talking about it in the mainstream media a little bit. And I think I've talked to -- you know...98 percent of the people I interviewed for this book that are not law enforcement are gay. My editor was gay. I talked to a lot of gay leaders who are concerned about these issues. But there's always a fear when you're struggling for civil rights; if you bring unattractive things to the floor, it will hurt the whole movement, and yet you're putting people at risk with this behavior.

Let me make this point too: This kind of behavior flourishes simply because there are so many secrets, and there is so much stuff that's not talked about. And also it's very profitable because so much of the money that you get from circuit parties and from sex phone lines and from all the personal ads -- all that stuff, it's fueled by the parties and everything. And what do you do at the parties? It's all run on drugs.

Andrew traversed this universe. There were the rich, elegant. He was smart enough and he was glib enough. He knew enough about art and architecture. He could sit down at any table and converse with anyone about anything. And he was such a consumer of status. He knew all the labels and he knew the places to go and things to do. So he was an easy conversationalist and highly entertaining. So he knew these rich, older men in La Jolla. He had a group of his own contemporaries, who were a little bit older than he was, who were young professionals, some of whom were semi-closeted, at least in their professional life they were closeted. So inside Hillcrest, Andrew would facilitate them and help them meet other people and get them to know people. And then there was this group of young pretty boys, who were much younger, and they're like the supermodels. They're just sort of like the arm candy. And they were the ones it was just very hip and cool to be around.

They're young boys here. You know, they're just like young kids anywhere. You know, getting their first jobs or whatever, and so they're part of the hip, cool party-scene group. Then there's this whole group of the military guys -- Jeff Trail came out of that group -- they're young officers. And, again, a lot of young kids who come here from the Midwest, they've left their families. They're just coming out. And they need to build structure to themselves. They need to replace their family and friends whom they've left behind. A lot of people reinvent themselves.

California is the land of reinvention, and Andrew was the premier person for that. But a lot of these kids come out here, they semi-reinvent themselves, and there's not a whole lot of structure, and they come into Hillcrest and Andrew was perfect. Because he would be the first person that anybody ever met. And he'd say, "Oh, you'd be perfect for so-and-so. I'll fix you up with so-and-so." And he would trade in these favors.

Potter: In your book you describe San Diego as a small town, a place that one of Cunanan's older patrons described as "Omaha by the bay."

Orth: It's a small town to the elite. And I'm not just talking about the rich people. I'm talking about the political elite and the media and the people who've been here, it seems like it's much more of a small town. Don't you think it is [laughs]? I think anytime you can have somebody as notorious as Andrew Cunanan and have him be the subject of big articles in Time and Newsweek and never have him mentioned in the local newspaper is pretty amazing.

Potter: What did you make of that?

Orth: The fact that people have told me that they've seen Andrew at parties, at the son of the owner of the paper's house [David Copley]. And that was an extremely sensitive subject. And I was told that it was an extremely sensitive subject. The San Diego Union-Tribune did not write about Andrew Cunanan at all for weeks. The very first mention, as I recall, was an obituary of his third victim, Lee Miglin, and never mentioned Andrew Cunanan. And the first several stories they did were off wire copy and talking to people in Minneapolis and never once asked anybody in Hillcrest nor anybody Cunanan knew to comment. I thought that was just kind of amazing. I mean, you've got national reporters coming out from all over the country to do major stories about this guy, and he's never mentioned in his local newspaper. That's odd.

Potter: Did you ever get to talk to David Copley?

Orth: No. I talked to a couple of reporters on the paper. I talked to other people on background. And I just put what I knew in the book. I really am not hiding anything [laughs]. I mean, I did not put everything I knew in the book. I'm not suggesting a conspiracy. I'm just letting the reader draw a conclusion. It seems odd to me.

Potter: You quoted Kelly Thornton, a police-beat reporter for the U-T.

Orth: Yeah, saying that she got the story when [Cunanan] went on the ten-most-wanted list, which is, I think, June the 12. Which is six weeks after he killed four people.

Potter: And you quoted [Thornton] as saying she said she wasn't going to write anything titillating about the case.

Orth: Yeah. You know. She just had to realize... If your publisher were involved in something, would you go ask him and demand the truth [laughs]?

Potter: How did you find the after-hours place in Hillcrest you mention called Wolfs, where you said a lot of meth users hang out?

Orth: I was just talking to guys. Just talking to people. What I had found out in San Francisco, because San Francisco is more open -- the Castro, I think, is more open than Hillcrest, probably. And I knew that Andrew, he was sending people up to San Francisco to get certain kinds of pornography, stuff that was so rough it wasn't even on the shelves, you know. And, he was trying to -- he was so involved; he was getting more and more involved in S&M sex, and I think he was being coarsened by all of this. It was a daily diet for him. At the same time, he's unstable to start with, and he's taking all these drugs, and so I just asked people, 'Where are gathering spots where people who might be involved in various activities... Where would they gather?' So if you were involved, if you wanted to go to the wet T-shirt contest, you go to the Hole [laughs]. You know, tweaking [laughs]? You go whichever place. People were very open to me about where you would go to find different things. I mean it's no secret. You just have to ask.

Potter: Does Wolfs have a sign on it or is it hidden away on some back street?

Orth: I can't remember. It's very dark. You know, people would describe things to me and tell me things.

Potter: So, why did Cunanan go so wrong?

Orth: I tried to explain that in the first 200 pages of the book and you didn't get it [laughs]. I really feel like I failed. I think his family background was essential to understand the values. The kids saying that he couldn't go out and play "kick the can." He felt from an early age in Bonita that he was a mama's boy on the one hand. And on the other hand, he was memorizing The Preppy Handbook. And telling people to have cracked crab for their eighth-grade birthday parties. And trying to be Sebastian White from Brideshead Revisited. Just insane kind of grandiosity at such a young age. And thinking that image was the most important thing all the time and pretending that you're rich and hiding the fact that you're half Filipino, not wanting people to see your mother and your father. And then really loving your father and mother, I think. And then having your father leave the family like that and be abandoned, and then have such rage toward your mother that you beat her up and break her shoulder.... What are we dealing with here? Obviously we're not dealing with the typical middle-American family as they tried to portray themselves during the time that all the crimes were happening.

Andrew Cunanan in junior high

Andrew Cunanan in junior high

I think, with Cunanan, money and unbridled materialism runs throughout his whole world. I mean Versace was one of the most grand materialists of all. He lived this incredibly opulent lifestyle. How can you spend $70 million dollars in one year, which is what he declared was his personal expenses the year before he died. I think the whole idea of this kind of ease... Andrew never wanted to work. He wanted the big house in La Jolla overlooking the ocean. You saw his application to Bishop's when he was 12 years old. He wanted the beautiful house overlooking the ocean. He wanted the two Mercedes. He wanted beautiful children and two beautiful dogs. There was never a wife mentioned, but this is what he saw for himself. But somehow he started hustling in Balboa Park when he was still in high school, bringing a gun to school when he's still at Bishop's, starting to use drugs. There's something along the way at a very young age.

I also think that he was so torn because the mother wanted him to be a priest. But he was lazy. He was greedy and he was lazy. Hookers, one of the Miami Beach detectives told me, often are. And I think he was. He did not wish to work for a living. He wished to create another reality and dwell in it. And he clearly didn't have much of a conscience.

Potter: What were your impressions of Bishop's culture, where Cunanan went to high school?

Orth: I think the school requested that nobody speak to reporters. And so a lot of people honored that. But there were other people who knew him very well that did talk to me. And I think as time went on, that became less of an issue. There were a number of people from Bishop's who were very cooperative with me.

Potter: Did the school ever — administrators and whatnot — did they ever cooperate?

Orth: They didn't, they didn't. I concentrated on talking to the people who had the closest contact with him.

Potter: And what about this peculiar thing you report in the book where the moms of the Bishop's students were asking for money in order to grant their permission for interviews with their kids?

Orth: I really thought that was probably the lowest point of my reporting. It was shortly after the body had been found. When I came here for the first time after Andrew had been caught, and I went to that funeral Mass for him and met his mother. And that was when people were still very raw from the whole story, and there had been so much media attention. And people were hanging up on me right and left and being very rude to me. Making it clear that I was like lower than scum to even call them up. But what I was amazed by was this tabloidization that had created this frenzy throughout, I mean this paying for stories that created this frenzy out here throughout Hillcrest.

They didn't have time to talk to the FBI because they had to fly back and be on Good Morning America or The Today Show. And if the FBI wanted to talk to them, they could come to the airport at 5:00 in the morning or 4:00 in the morning. People who barely knew him, you know, were getting paid a lot of money for their stories. But I can understand people who are working, young guys who are working, you know, who need the money or something....

I don't believe in paying for stories, but the idea that these mothers of classmates of Andrew's would start acting as their children's agents and saying how much am I gonna pay. I mean, that really took me aback, I must say. "How much are you going to pay my daughter? She has nothing." I said, "Nothing." "Well, she has nothing to say to you" [laughs]. Wow.

And then there's people who said that they would only speak to me for payment. "Did I want to buy their yearbook inscriptions or the yearbook?" You know, things like that. And I have to say I was taken aback by it. Now we're into this culture we saw with Monica [Lewinsky]. It's just out of control. And really, because of Versace, the FBI completely intensified their investigation, and so the media was driving the investigation all the time. And the other thing that I thought was interesting too was that the things that the gay press most objected to -- that he was dressing as a woman, that he was part of a homosexual love triangle -- were coming right out of here. They were coming right out of people who had known him in Hillcrest who were gay.

Potter: What about that story in the U-T that was later refuted about Cunanan having AIDS?

Orth: I talked to Kelly Thornton about it, who wrote the story. And they really believed that this was the truth. And then there were other people who said absolutely not. And so I wrote it in such a way to let the reader draw the conclusion. But I'll tell you one thing. The Miami Beach Police certainly took it very seriously because they were trying to figure out motive. And that was giving them a motive at the time he was still at large.

Potter: So, you think he had AIDS?

Orth: Oh, I don't think so. I don't think he did. Absolutely not. But I do have to say that I did find through the years several instances where he really was sort of neurotic about it and paranoid that he was. And so the fact that he might have gone and said that [he had AIDS] to the guy is not so dismissed as out of hand as maybe some people would say. Because I found previous instances where he told people he was sick and he was afraid to get tested and all of this stuff. I mean, that came from very early on when he was keeping that journal that burned, during his early days in the Castro. He was always very uptight and scared that it might be [AIDS]. So I don't think that is a totally implausible story.

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