A Rome jury sentences two men from the Bay Area to life in jail for the assassination of a police officer.
A jury in Rome sentenced two American friends to life in prison on Wednesday for the 2019 killing of a police officer in a horrific unraveling of a small-time drug sting gone wrong.
The jury deliberated for more than 12 hours before finding Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, guilty and sentencing them to Italy’s harshest sentences.
Elder and Natale-Hjorth were convicted on all offences, including murder, attempted extortion, burglary, resisting a public officer, and unlawfully carrying an attack-style knife. As presiding judge Marina Finiti read the verdict, there was a collective gasp in the Rome courtroom.
Prosecutors charged that Elder stabbed Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega 11 times with a knife he carried on his trip to Europe from California and that Natale-Hjorth assisted Elder in concealing the knife in their hotel room following the stabbing. Elder and Natale-Hjorth, Mill Valley, Calif., classmates, were 19 and 18 years old at the time of the July 26, 2019, incident.
Italy was shocked by the assassination of an officer from the illustrious Carabinieri paramilitary police corps. Cerciello Rega, 35, was hailed as a national hero following his death.
While waiting for the verdict, the slain officer’s widow sobbed and hugged his brother, Paolo.
Rosa Maria Esilio sobbed outside the courthouse, “His honor was defended.” “He was everyone’s Carabinieri, everyone’s baby. He was a marvelous husband; he was a marvelous man, a deserving servant of the state.”
Following the reading of the verdicts, the defendants were escorted from the courthouse. Elder’s father, Ethan Elder, called out as he was escorted out, “Finnegan, I love you.” Both of his parents was taken aback.
Renato Borzone, Elder’s lawyer, described the verdict against his client as “a shame for Italy.” Fabio Alonzi, Natale-lawyer, Hjorth’s said that he was speechless.
The two Californians were released from steel-barred defendant cages inside the courthouse to sit with their attorneys until the case was submitted to the jury, which included Finiti, another judge, and six civilian jurors.
Elder said to one of his attorneys, “I’m stressed.” Elder kissed a crucifix that he wears on a chain around his neck before the jury left. He also turned to Natale-Hjorth and motioned upward as he extended the crucifix to him through a glass partition.
After the jury began deliberating, Elder and his father crossed their fingers for good fortune. Natale-Hjorth was welcomed by his Italian uncle.
Cerciello Rega had just returned from his honeymoon when he and another plainclothes cop, Andrea Varriale, were assigned to investigate an extortion attempt.
Prosecutors allege that the Americans concocted a scheme involving a stolen bag and cellphone following the failure of their attempt to purchase cocaine in Rome’s Trastevere nightlife district with 80 euros ($96). Natale-Hjorth and Elder testified that they paid for but did not obtain the cocaine.
Both defendants assert their right to self-defense. The Americans testified during the trial, which started more than a year ago, that they believed Cerciello Rega and Varriale were thugs or mobsters out to attack them on a dark, desolate street. The officers were dressed casually for summer, not in uniforms, and the defendants maintain that the officers never displayed their police badges.
Under Italian law, an accomplice to a suspected murder may even be charged with murder even though he or she did not play a material role in the shooting. Both defendants face life in prison, according to prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta.
Varriale, who was injured in a scuffle with Natale-Hjorth when his partner wrestled Elder, testified that the officers did mark themselves as Carabinieri.
Elder was traveling alone in Europe at the time of the murder, while Natale-Hjorth was spending his summer vacation with his Italian grandparents, who live near Rome. The friends gathered in the Italian capital for a couple of days of sightseeing and nightlife.
Prosecutors charged that Elder repeatedly stabbed Cerciello Rega with a seven-inch military-style assault knife, who bled profusely — like a “fountain,” Varriale testified — and died shortly afterwards at a hospital.
Elder testified in court that during their scuffle, the heavyset Cerciello Rega was on top of him on the ground, and he thought he was being strangled. Elder said that he took out the knife and stabbed him to avert death, and when the officer did not immediately release him, he stabbed him again.
Following the stabbing, the Americans fled to their hotel room, where Elder cleaned the knife and then asked him to conceal it, according to Natale-Hjorth. Natale-Hjorth testified that he concealed the knife in their room behind a ceiling frame, where it was found hours later by police.
The two men testified that they tried to purchase cocaine several hours before the stabbing in Rome’s Trastevere nightlife area. They charged a dealer through the interference of a go-between, but got an aspirin-like pill in lieu of cocaine.
Before Natale-Hjorth could confront the dealer, a neighboring Carabinieri patrol interfered, scattering everybody. In retaliation, the Americans grabbed the go-knapsack between’s and used the phone inside to arrange a meeting to exchange the bag and phone for the cash they had lost in the botched drug deal.
Meanwhile, Cerciello Rega, dressed in a T-shirt and long shorts, and Varriale, dressed in a polo shirt and jeans, set out to investigate a small-scale extortion attempt. They were not armed.
From the outset, the trial largely revolved around Varriale’s testimony versus that of the young American visitors. Rosa Maria Esilio, Cerciello Rega’s widow, sat in the front row, always holding a photograph of her husband. Following the slaying, photographs of the newlyweds, with Cerciello Rega dressed in his dress uniform, were widely circulated in Italian newspapers.
As the trial neared its conclusion, one of Elder’s attorneys, Borzone, claimed in court that the fatal stabbing was motivated by long-standing psychological issues, including a constant fear of being stabbed. Borzone testified in court that Elder saw a world riddled with enemies as a result of his psychological issues and that something inside him “short-circuited” when approached by the cop.