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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?