American teen claims he knifed Italian officer in self-defense, judge says

One of two U.S. teenagers jailed in Rome for allegedly slaying a police officer said he feared he was being strangled, according to a judge's ruling

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Associated Press

ROME — One of two American teenagers jailed in Rome for allegedly slaying a police officer said he stabbed the plainclothes officer because he feared he was being strangled, according to a judge's ruling obtained by The Associated Press on Monday.

Carabinieri paramilitary police Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega was stabbed 11 times and collapsed, bleeding profusely, on a street near the teens' hotel on Friday, after he and a fellow plainclothes officer confronted the Americans as part of an investigation into a cocaine deal the two were allegedly involved in. He died shortly afterward at a hospital.

Carabinieri Officer Mario Rega was stabbed two death in Rome on July 26, 2019.Italian Carabinieri via AP

Judge Chiara Gallo wrote in her ruling upholding the jailing of the two California residents that 19-year-old Finnegan Lee Elder told authorities he stabbed Cerciello Rega after he felt pressure on his neck.

But, the judge noted, Elder didn't have any marks on his neck indicating an attempted strangulation.

Gallo said the young man's friend and travel companion, 18-year-old Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, told investigators he wasn't aware of the stabbing until Elder woke him up at their hotel hours later and told them he had "used a knife" and then washed it.

Investigators said Saturday both teens had admitted their roles in Cerciello Rega's death. Under Italian law, anyone who participated in a slaying can face murder charges.

In her ruling, issued Saturday, the judge wrote that Elder admitted during interrogation by prosecutors that he stabbed the officer "several times" with a knife described as a military-style attack model with a 7-inch-long (18-centimeter) blade. She said Elder told investigators he didn't realize the two men were police officers and believed they were men sent by an Italian man whose knapsack they had stolen a few hours earlier.

Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.

That man, identified as Sergio Brugiatelli, told investigators that two youths with American accents approached him in Rome's Trastevere nightlife district asking if he had 80 euros ($90) worth of cocaine to sell, according to the judge's order. Brugiatelli said he didn't, but accompanied one of the teens, a blond he later identified as Natale-Hjorth, to a dealer in the neighborhood. Brugiatelli said the other teen, whom he later identified as Elder, sat waiting on a bench where Brugiatelli had left his bag with a cellphone

According to Brugiatelli, the "blond youth" gave the dealer money for the drugs, but at the sight of approaching police officers, everyone scattered. He later told investigators that when he returned to the bench a friend told him that Elder had run off with his bag.

Brugiatelli said he dialed his cellphone number and one of the teens answered and demanded he bring 80 or 100 euros plus a gram of cocaine to a street near their hotel if he wanted the bag back. After police were informed of the extortion attempt, Cerciello Rega and his partner, Andrea Varriale, were sent to the rendezvous point, the judge's order said.

American suspects in Rome murder case.Polizia di Stato

The judge noted that the teens claimed the officers didn't show identification. But, she said, Varriale told investigators both officers showed their badges and identified themselves as police. "But the pair, even before we could carry out any kind of check attacked us physically," she quoted Varriale as telling investigators.

Varriale told investigators that Cerciello Rega yelled as he was struggling with Elder, "Stop, we're Carabinieri. Enough." He said Natale-Hjorth kicked, scratched and punched him to break away, then both teens fled. As he watched them run Varriale said he saw his partner was bleeding profusely from his left side, near the chest. "Before falling to the ground, he told me, 'They stabbed me,'" the judge quoted Varriale as saying.

Cerciello Rega's was eulogized Monday as a hero at a funeral held in his hometown, Somma Vesuviana, in the same church where the 35-year-old officer had been married six weeks earlier.

Italy's military chaplain, Archbishop Santo Marciano, said in his eulogy that Cerciello Rega lived and died to safeguard others' lives, adding that the officer was known for warmly greeting residents of the neighborhood in historic Rome. He spent his off-duty hours as a volunteer dishing out hot meals to the homeless in Rome's main station and accompanied ailing faithful to religious shrines, including in Lourdes, France, the archbishop said.

Meanwhile, at the San Francisco home of Elder's father, a sign reading "Please respect family's privacy do not disturb" hung on a gate Monday in front of the house. When a reporter rang the doorbell, a man wearing a Giants baseball cap appeared behind the gate and asked, "Do I know you?" and then pointed to the sign and went back into the house.

In a statement, the Elder family said they had been informed Monday that a U.S. government official in Rome had visited with Elder. "We continue to gather facts about his case through his legal representatives," the family said.

Police in Mill Valley, California, where the suspects went to high school and had lived for a time, said neither teen had an arrest record or turned up in reports of family domestic violence.

Meanwhile, police and prosecutors were investigating what was described as the illegal blindfolding of Natale-Hjorth after Italian newspapers published a photo Sunday of the teen with what appeared to be a scarf covering his eyes and his hands handcuffed behind his back as he sat in a chair at a police station.

Rome Provincial Cmdr. Francesco Gargaro told AP the blindfold was illegal and lasted only a few minutes, before the young man was brought to another room for interrogation. The officer who put the blindfold on was being transferred to other duties, while police investigated who took and distributed the photo, authorities said.

Rome's prosecutor general, Giovanni Salvi, said in a statement that a lawyer was present during the teens' interrogation by prosecutors, which was recorded and transcribed and that neither suspect was blindfolded or handcuffed while they were questioned.

On Monday, Natale-Hjorth's lawyer, Emiliano Sisinni, said his client hadn't said anything about being blindfolded to a fellow attorney assisting with his defense who was present during the interrogation. Sisinni said he became aware of the blindfold only after seeing the photo in the Italian media.

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said that while "there is no doubt that the victim of this tragedy is our Mario," he praised the Italian police for transferring the officer who put the blindfold on Natale-Hjorth.

Treating a suspect that way "doesn't reflect our principles and juridical values," said Conte, who is a lawyer. He also decried that the photo was circulated on social media.