Wednesday’s episode of American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace flashes back to the disturbing start of Andrew Cunanan’s multi-city murder spree—when Cunanan killed two friends, Jeff Trail and David Madson, in Minnesota. Because there were no witnesses to the crimes—and everyone involved is dead— there is no way to know exactly what transpired in April 1997 inside Madson’s apartment, where Trail was found murdered, or on the drive approximately 60 miles north to Rush City in May, where Madson was found dead.
“Tom Rob Smith, the writer, had to invent a lot of what had happened based on what we knew from the crime scene and we knew about Andrew and David,” American Crime Story executive producer Brad Simpson explained on Vanity Fair’s Still Watching podcast this week. “We know there was this murder and then we know they were in a car together, and we know that David begged for his life at the end, but we had to fill in what might have happened during that time.”
The puzzling sequence of events has always left one burning question—why didn’t David Madson escape in the days after Trail’s murder? In June 1997, Newsweek plainly stated that “Madson’s role remains hard to figure out. He apparently made no effort to leave.” Even more confounding, “neighbors saw the two men walking Madson’s dog the day after Trail's murder.”
Vanity Fair contributor Maureen Orth addressed this mystery in her 1997 report for this magazine. Gregg McCrary, senior consultant of the Threat Assessment Group and former supervisory special agent of the F.B.I.’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, said that Cunanan’s influence over Madson was “to a degree Stockholm syndrome,” explaining, “these sexually sadistic offenders have that ability to control people—not necessarily physical control. Many times it’s just out of fear.”
“They have a sixth sense of who they can manipulate and control,” McCrary said. “Their interpersonal skills are so strong, and their ability to target these victims, to understand their needs, to meet these needs and fulfill them, are so developed that in return these victims always feel obligated.”
Even before Trail’s murder, Cunanan had given Madson reason to fear him—claiming to have connections to the mob and “bragg[ing] about getting someone killed the day the person left prison, because he had ratted on a friend of Andrew’s.” Cunanan and Madson had met in a San Francisco bar in 1995, when Cunanan spotted the handsome architect and sent him a drink. Orth reported that the relationship escalated over the next year, but cooled off in the fall of 1996 when Madson suspected Cunanan of what Newsweek called “shady dealings.”
When Cunanan flew to Minneapolis, friends of Madson’s said the architect seemed unhappy about picking Cunanan up at the airport. Another friend told People that Cunanan was still besotted with Madson. Madson, on the other hand, “thought Andrew was a little shady, secretive. . .David didn’t want to be alone with him.” According to Orth, however, Madson was “a peacemaker who avoided confrontation” and “wanted to save people”—personality traits that also help explain why Madson acted the way he did.
“Those six days where David was with Andrew was the most fascinating part of this story to me because, I mean, what do you do as a human essentially being kidnapped after seeing something like that?” Cody Fern, who played Madson, told Still Watching. “How do you get through six days?”
Smith said that one eyewitness offered context about the duo’s relationship in the days after Trail’s murder: “An eyewitness saw the two of them walking together and David had been crying and Andrew was chatting at him really quickly. So that really gave the sense of one person who’s distraught and one person who is trying to cajole them into going on the run together.”
Fern said that, to prepare for the role, he read over 50 postcards and letters that Cunanan sent Madson—illustrating Cunanan’s eery detachment from reality. “Andrew would write to David when he was traveling or pretending to travel. He was in France or he was in Prague. The way he communicated through the letters it was very clear they had a special relationship. Not knowing everything that comes later it was the beginning of a beautiful love story.”
In “House By the Lake,” Smith scripts a scene where Madson actually gets the opportunity to escape. After Cunanan and Madson leave Minneapolis in Madson’s Jeep, they stop at a roadside bar and restaurant to get sustenance. Captor and hostage sit, listening to Aimee Mann perform live, and Madson eventually makes his way to the bathroom—where he finally gets a moment alone.
“The key image for me in the entire piece is when David Madson almost escapes,” said Smith. “He’s in the restroom of a bar and he looks out the window at the world and he sees the world passing him by. You’d think when you’ve been kidnapped by a killer that freedom is going to be a thing that’s incredibly exciting—you’re desperate to get to.”
But to Madson, the greatest tragedy of these final hours was that, as a gay man in the 1990s, the outside world does not offer a much better alternative. Smith explains:
“He looks out the window and thinks, ‘What am I escaping to? Disgrace? Hatred? There is no freedom.’ The world that is beyond this window that in every other thriller he would have climbed out of and run screaming for help—there is no help. The people coming to arrest Andrew Cunanan would also arrest him because there’s no way they would believe he had nothing to do with Jeffrey Trail’s death. ‘They’ll hate me like they hate him because they hated me before.’”
Months later, Jean Rosen, the owner of the Full Moon Bar & Restaurant where the real Cunanan and Madson ate lunch the afternoon of May 2, remembered seeing the men.
“Madson seemed jumpy. He looked over his shoulder every time the front door opened,” reported the L.A. Times. “But whatever he feared, it didn't seem to be his companion.”
Get Vanity Fair’s HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Julie MillerJulie Miller is a Senior Hollywood writer for Vanity Fair’s website.Joanna RobinsonJoanna Robinson is a Hollywood writer covering TV and film for VanityFair.com.