Would Frank Monte Please Go Away? Versaces Fend Off a Private Dick

It was the party of the season, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Dec. 8 Costume Institute ball in celebration of its Gianni Versace retrospective, and Frank Monte was in the building. With his feather boa-clad fiancée, Justine Ski, wrapped around him, his skin glowing and taut as mylar (the result of a recent face lift), Mr. Monte, a private investigator who has the taste of publicity in his mouth, had infiltrated the ranks of what is shaping up to be his worst enemy: the Versace empire.

Mr. Monte is one of the few people on the planet who still believes that Andrew Cunanan, the spree killer, did not murder Gianni Versace. He claims that from the spring of 1996 until the designer’s murder on July 15, 1997, he worked for Versace as both a New York-based bodyguard and a hired confidant. He says it wasn’t Cunanan, but a Mafia assassin, who killed Versace.

To say that the Versace camp can’t stand Mr. Monte is a monumental understatement. The designer’s sister Donatella, brother Santo and the family’s company, Versace Group, have retained attorney Lynn Shafran, and she is supervising an investigation of the private investigator. Ms. Shafran, who has also represented Madonna, would not comment on the record, other than to say that neither she nor the family believe that Mr. Monte ever worked for Gianni Versace.

Several spokesmen for the family and the Versace Group vociferously denied that Versace hired Mr. Monte or even knew him. One of them, Lou Colasuonno, the former editor in chief of both the New York Daily News and the New York Post who now works as a flack for the Dilenschneider Group public relations firm, called Mr. Monte “a profiteering publicity hound, who, like so many others of his ilk, crawl out from under a rock whenever there is a tragedy and try to cash in on it.” He added, “Unfortunately, Gianni Versace is not here to protect his reputation from unscrupulous opportunists.… But we are.”

Therefore, the designer’s specter couldn’t have been too pleased when Mr. Monte was not only invited to the Costume Institute gala-which was specifically meant to memorialize Gianni Versace-but apparently was sent four free tickets. (A spokesman at the Versace Group said that no one in the office could figure out who had sent them to him.)

“This Versace thing,” Mr. Monte bragged, “is nothing in the scheme of my life.”

The Full Monte

That’s a true statement, though not in the way Mr. Monte intended it. In December 1995, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York sued Mr. Monte for $3,000 for breach of contract. According to Larry Bray, the attorney for the association at the time, Mr. Monte had made an arrangement to purchase its mailing list to use for soliciting clients for his detective agency. Mr. Monte would be billed for the list. But according to Mr. Bray, when the bill arrived, Mr. Monte then said that the list had not proved useful to him. The bar association waived its fee and has said it asked for the list back. “We thought that was the end of it,” recalled Mr. Bray, “but my clients had put decoy addresses on the list which would come back to them. They received solicitations from Monte. So, in the end, he had gone ahead and used the list.” Mr. Monte said, “My people in L.A. had apparently called for [the list].… With 40-odd people … working for me, I really can’t keep up with commercial litigations.” He said that he’d “never heard of this list business until my company received a summons. My lawyer said ‘Pay it.’” The two parties settled out of court.

Mr. Monte has been through worse: In 1987, he was arrested and charged with conspiracy to murder his wife, Erin Patricia Monte, in April 1984, by allegedly rigging exposed electric wires in the couple’s garage in Kensington, Australia. Articles on Mr. Monte that appeared in New Idea magazine and several Australian papers reported that Magistrate Charles Gilmore threw out the conspiracy-to-murder charge against Mr. Monte because he found the evidence unconvincing.

More recently, Larry King appeared to bust him, live on the air, for exaggerating his involvement with the O.J. Simpson defense team. And on Jan. 19, 1996, ABC’s Prime Time Live captured him, on tape, apparently condoning illegal activities in the service of corporate clients. “[You have to] bug the room, which is all illegal. And, uh, you need to bug the telephones.… [T]here, you need to pay a lot of bribes,” he told an undercover reporter for the show.

Samuel E. Messina, an official with New York’s Department of State, said Mr. Monte is currently under investigation for such activities by the state’s Division of Licensing Services, which grants private investigator licenses. However, Mr. Monte denied that he was being investigated. “It’s all bullshit. There’s nothing pending. I have a renewed license. Please put that in [your story].”

Since he moved from Los Angeles to Manhattan eight years ago, setting up business at both a Rockefeller Center office and his apartment on the ritzy Upper East Side, the private eye has become a weirdly familiar presence in the social arena, both downtown and uptown, more and more in the latter sphere. Sitting at a table in the bar of the Algonquin Hotel late last July, sipping coffee and showing off post-op snapshots of his recent face lift operation-eyes sunken, lips chapped white, skin liver-gray, hardened specks of blood dried to his temples and ears-Mr. Monte said, “I just turned 52. I don’t want to wait 15 years to find out where Balthazar, or the next Balthazar, is. I want to know when Balthazar’s opening, what’s the best table there, and how can I get it.”

He has close ties to Rush & Molloy’s George Rush and the Post ‘s society columnist Neal Travis, and is the source of a constant flow of items for the Daily News , the Post , and Avenue , Quest and Manhattan File magazines. Mr. Monte said he has hired six publicists over the past five years to act as his “social planners.” When reporting for this story began, his representative was nightclub flack turned Kennedy-tragedy opportunist R. Couri Hay.

To Mr. Monte’s line of thinking, he was entitled to be invited to the Costume Institute. “I’ve been going to parties at the Met long before the Versaces had even left their tiny village,” he said in his toned-down Australian accent. “These people are about bad taste and a lot of money. I don’t see them as some hulking monster coming after me. I’m not scared of them.… Actually, I was hoping Donatella would come over and hit me so I could own one of their stores.”

On Dec. 30, the Miami police closed their investigation of Gianni Versace’s death, concluding that there was probable cause that Andrew Cunanan shot the designer. But Mr. Monte maintains a standing offer of a $50,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest of the “real” killer of the designer. In the Algonquin interview, he said, “I’m not going to lay down. And if I get shot tomorrow by an Italian bullet, it’ll just prove that I was telling the truth.”

So far, however, the only person The Observer has located who said he believed Mr. Monte was hired by Versace was Mr. Hay: He claimed that backstage at the Versus fashion show in New York in 1997, he introduced himself to Versace as a close friend of Mr. Monte.

Versace’s reply, according to Mr. Hay: “He said, ‘Great guy, nice guy.’ In other words, he definitely knew who he was.… I can’t speak for Andrew Cunanan, but if the media knew how often Frank had met with Gianni, they’d have married the two off by now.”

Looking for a Rockefeller Skull

“Frank Monte,” said the investigator’s friend, New York Post columnist Steve Dunleavy, “is the genuine article. We need Frank Monte.”

But one veteran Sydney newspaper reporter who had frequently covered Mr. Monte’s Australia-based exploits in the 80′s told The Observer that “when I covered him back then, he was a flamboyant, self-promoting wanker. His specialty was ‘burst-ins’ on cheating couples. His office walls were lined with red felt and dollar bills.”

But, said the reporter, he was bright and ambitious, too. “He had a way of weaseling himself into things, particularly with getting on with the high society, the ‘charity women’ of Sydney’s eastern suburbs, which is the equivalent to Manhattan’s Upper East Side.”

The reporter said she thought Mr. Monte “probably met Versace, but didn’t actually work for him. Monte’s an ounce of truth and 16 ounces of bullshit.”

When asked about his Versace connection during the Algonquin interview, Mr. Monte became seriously annoyed. “I’m sick of talking about Versace. I thought this was going to be a profile about me.”

Born François Ferdinand Monteneri in Alexandria, Egypt, Mr. Monte told a story of seeing his first dead body, at the age of 9, headless and being dragged down the streets of the capital. He started in the private investigation business three decades ago, spying on philandering spouses and becoming, as he himself put it, a “hard-bitten corporate spy.”

In 1979, in his first big case, Mr. Monte was allegedly paid $300,000 to travel to what is now Papua New Guinea and bring back the head, or some sort of evidence, of the demise of anthropologist Michael Rockefeller, who went into cannibal country and was never heard from again.

Mr. Monte said he brought back three skulls, handing them over to agents for the family, whom he claims were satisfied that one of them was their man. “When you’re dealing with people like the Rockefellers, they don’t even look at you,” said Mr. Monte. “They say: ‘Just do it.’ You know what the filthy rich are like,” he continued. “They dragged me up to their house on Fifth Avenue, and said, ‘It’s been verified.’ Then they asked me to not talk about it for 10 years, which I didn’t.”

“There were several investigators who had claimed to have been hired,” said Granville Waterman, director of security for the Rockefellers. “Nelson Rockefeller may have been the only person who would have known” if Mr. Monte was hired by the family.

In the 70′s, Mr. Monte worked for Aristotle Onassis as his bodyguard and confidant (“I would pick up girls, take them shopping and make sure they arrived at his parties dressed the right way,” the private investigator recalled), and he performed bodyguarding duties for Sammy Davis Jr. and Neil Diamond. Two years ago, in a much-publicized case that made all the gossip columns, he was hired by Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando to find lost money they’d invested in a “health ranch” spa-money that allegedly had been embezzled.

But Mr. Monte’s desire to run with celebrities appeared to backfire on him during a July 27, 1994, edition of Larry King Live on CNN.

“Have you been retained by the Simpson folks?” Mr. King asked him. “Not yet,” replied Mr. Monte.

“But you are going to be?”

“We’re talking about it. But, no, I haven’t been retained.”

“When you say ‘yet,’” said Mr. King, whose suspicions seemed to be aroused, “it sounds optimistic for you, like-”

Mr. Monte interrupted the talk-show host: “Well, you never know. I can’t say that I have, no.”

“O.K. Have you involved yourself in this case at all?”

“Yes,” replied Mr. Monte.

“Have you assisted the current investigators?”

“No.”

A Larry King staff member said that Mr. Monte had been considered as a possible guest on a July show regarding the Versace murder, but that after “reviewing his history,” producers decided to pass. (Mr. Hay asserted that Mr. Monte was in fact “booked” but “bumped” at the last minute in favor of two other guests.)

Yet Mr. Monte did land in the middle of a formidable CNN guest panel on a July 17 Burden of Proof broadcast about Gianni Versace’s murder; among its members were Raymond Pierce, who profiles serial killers for the New York Police Department, and criminologist Michael Rustigan. “We had an understanding that he was Versace’s former investigator,” said CNN public relations manager Kelly Keane. “We had no reason to question it.”

She added, “The show is about differing viewpoints, and on the Versace matter, Frank Monte had an interesting point of view.”

Proof Is in the Paper Cutter

Several days after the Algonquin interview with Mr. Monte, the private eye arranged, through Mr. Hay, to allow this reporter to look at several documents he said would prove he had a working contract with Gianni Versace. The meeting in Mr. Hay’s lush Upper West Side courtyard was made all the stranger for the presence of a paper cutter perched on top of an outdoor table.

Keeping this reporter several feet at bay, he held up one of the faxes allegedly sent to Mr. Monte by Versace himself from Milan. “As you can see,” he said-though The Observer couldn’t see at all-”it is signed.” Then he placed the document on the paper cutter and dramatically sliced the signatures off with a grating chop. That done, The Observer was allowed to read the faxes.

“Dear Mr. Monte,” began one, dated March 6, 1996. “Here is our contract. You will receive documents from New York to you today. The money also will be delivered to your home.”

Another reads: “Dear Mr. Monte, You are to meet — [here, Mr. Hay had covered up the name] at the Beverly Hills Hotel, California, on 19-10-96. He will call you. Your funds will be transferred to Amex.” All three faxes have Versace’s Medusa medallion at the top and the correct address of Versace’s Milan headquarters.

In early December, when Mr. Monte realized that his word was still being questioned, he shot off a fax of yet another document he claimed came from Versace. This one, again branded with the designer’s medallion, read: “Dear Mr. Monte, Here is enclosed our contract for confidential work. Money as before.” At the note’s close, the first five letters of Mr. Versace’s name were visible, the rest covered up.

The Versace Group sent The Observer a copy of its official facsimile cover sheet, a much simpler document devoid of the telltale Versace logo. It bears no resemblance to those Messrs. Hay and Monte provided, and the Versaces believe the letters are bogus. “On the matter of his credibility,” said Mr. Colasuonno of Mr. Monte, “my advice to all who deal with him is: Let the buyer beware.”

Sometime last fall, Mr. Monte fired Mr. Hay. “He’s a dangerous man, a whaddaya-call-it, loose cannon. I’m going with [publicist] Nadine Johnson now,” said Mr. Monte. But he and Ms. Johnson never cemented a deal. No matter, “We’re going to raise the stakes,” Mr. Monte said. “I don’t want to just be in Neal [Travis] and George [Rush] items. We’re going for bigger stuff.

“What I really want to do,” said the private eye, “is get out of this shit.”