A pair of San Francisco Bay Area friends who allegedly killed a police officer during a vacation in Italy won’t ever come back home.
On Wednesday, Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, were sentenced to life in prison by a Rome jury, who found the pair guilty of charges of homicide, attempted extortion, assault, resisting a public official, and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause in connection to the death of Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega.
According to the Associated Press, the then-teens were visiting Rome in 2019 when Elder stabbed the officer 11 times in a drug bust gone wrong before Natale-Hjorth helped hide the murder weapon in their hotel room. It all started because the two schoolmates set out to buy cocaine for a night out. They paid $100 for what turned out to be a fake substance, and in retaliation, reportedly stole a backpack and cellphone of the middle man, hoping to trade it for the drugs they paid for.
However, the owner of the backpack called the police, who pretended to be the backpack’s owners in order to make contact with the American duo. Officer Cerciello Rega and Officer Andrea Varriale met the tourists in plainclothes, before identifying themselves as police.
Here’s where the story gets messy. During the trial, Elder and Natale-Hjorth claimed the officers didn’t show their police badges, leading them to believe the Italian men were mobsters out to assault them on a dark, deserted street. That’s when both Americans “did not hesitate to engage in a scuffle which culminated in the tragic deadly wounding of Mario Rega Cerciello,” according to a police statement.
However, Varriale — who suffered a back injury in a scuffle with Natale-Hjorth while his partner was trying to apprehend Elder — testified that the officers did identify themselves as Carabinieri.
Elder claimed in court that he feared being strangled by Cerciello Rega, who fell on top of him during the scuffle. The California native claimed he stabbed the officer so he would get off of him — and when that didn’t work, stabbed him again.
The two tourists then fled to their hotel room, where Elder cleaned the weapon before telling Natale-Hjorth to hide it. (In Italy, an accomplice to an alleged murder can be charged with murder even if they didn’t physically participate in the death.) A police statement obtained by CNN read:
“They were already ready to leave the country. During the search of the hotel room, which was occupied by the two detainees, the murder weapon was found and seized, a knife of considerable size, cleverly hidden behind a ceiling panel, as well as the clothes worn during the crime… In the face of overwhelming evidence, they confessed to the charge.”
Toward the end of the trial, Elder’s lawyer argued that deep-set psychiatric problems, including a constant fear of being attacked, played a part in the fatal stabbing. The lawyer told the court his client saw a world filled with enemies because of psychiatric problems and that something “short-circuited” when Elder was confronted by the officer.
Cerciello Rega was mourned as a local hero following the killing. The 35-year-old had just gotten back into Rome from his honeymoon when he was put on a case to investigate Elder and Natale-Hjorth in a drug bust. His widow Rosa Maria Esilio was in court as the verdict was read, and she cried while holding onto a photo of her slain husband.
Attorney Franco Coppi – who represented the officer’s family – told AP the jury’s decision reflected the “gravity of the deed, an atrocious crime,” but admitted he wasn’t fully satisfied “because I can’t help but think that such a harsh sentence falls upon two young men in their 20s.”
What do U think about this ruling, Perezcious readers?
[Image via CBS Bay Area]