(Spoiler alert: Please do not read on if you haven’t watched Wednesday’s episode of “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”)
“The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” has been slowly unraveling the things that contributed to Andrew Cunanan’s mass murder spree over the course of the season. In its eighth episode, the show gets at what might be the biggest factor in what started Cunanan on a path that ultimately led to murder.
That factor is Modesto Cunanan (Jon Jon Briones), Andrew’s father. During the episode, we see the way that Modesto’s actions — including lying and embezzlement, which eventually get him wanted by the FBI — affected Andrew (Darren Criss) from a young age.
“American Crime Story” suggests Modesto doted on his son to an almost ridiculous degree while he was embezzling money, before he finally fled the country to return to Manila as authorities closed in. But did all that really happen? According to “Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History,” the book on which this season of “American Crime Story” is based, it did, and very little seems to have been embellished for the sake of an entertaining episode.
As shown in the episode, titled “Creator/Destroyer,” Modesto was originally from the Philippines, and served in the U.S. Navy for seven years. Maureen Orth, the journalist who penned “Vulgar Favors,” writes that Modesto met Andrew’s mother, MaryAnn (played by Joanna Adler), in 1961 in Long Beach, California. They married later that year and had four children: Christopher, Elena, Regina, and finally, Andrew.
Though Modesto was deployed when Andrew was born, MaryAnn suffered from postpartum depression after giving birth to him. As mentioned in the show, she was hospitalized for treatment, leaving Modesto to care for the baby Andrew, apparently deepening their bond.
That Modesto abused MaryAnn as shown in “American Crime Story” is also true, according to what MaryAnn and others told Orth. She spoke with Modesto for the book as well; he denies he abused his wife.
A big part of the episode is Modesto’s work and dreams of providing a wealthy life for his family. Modesto put himself through night school, as mentioned in the job interview scene in “Creator/Destroyer,” while working as a lab technician after retiring from the Navy. When he finished, he really did manage to get a job at Merrill Lynch — although he didn’t hold it for long. As Orth reports, Modesto worked at a number of trading firms, but didn’t stay at any of them for longer than two years.
“American Crime Story” suggests authorities were on the verge of arresting Modesto after some potentially fraudulent trades. Apparently, his debt was growing and he was taking part in shadier and shadier deals, and court documents later filed by Mary Ann allege that he had “misappropriated” $106,000 from his stock brokerage business — but a Time article from 2001 states that police in San Diego, where the family lived, had no record of a charge against him.
So Modesto’s flight from authorities might be an embellishment, but the details of what he did when he left aren’t. Orth reports that, as seen in the show, Modesto sold the family’s two houses, as well as his cars, gathered what money he could, and left for Manila. Orth reports that the family was left with a mere $700, and that the experience was devastating for Andrew.
Orth writes that Andrew did see his father again in 1988, when he was 19, shortly after Modesto left the country, just like in the episode. The visit is a bit shorter on “American Crime Story” — Andrew apparently spent five days in the country. But when Andrew found his father in Manila, it was the last time the two saw each other.
After Cunanan’s killing spree that ended with him shooting Gianni Versace, and later himself, in 1997, Modesto told the Chicago Tribune he “didn’t believe it” — both that his son was a killer, and that he was gay. He also started to make a documentary about his son’s life, according to a report from the Los Angeles Times, from “the father’s point-of-view.”
Modesto suggested that the FBI’s accusations that Cunanan was the killer were part of a conspiracy, something he hoped to uncover with the movie. “The American people are being misled,” Cunanan told the LA Times. “They swallowed everything hook, line and sinker because it came from the FBI.” The documentary was never actually completed.