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World & Nation

Italian police investigate blindfolding of California man held in officer’s killing

Gabriel Christian Natale Hjorth and Finnegan Lee Elder sit in their hotel room
In this combo photo released by Italian Carabinieri, Gabriel Christian Natale Hjorth, right, and Finnegan Lee Elder sit in their hotel room in Rome.
(Associated Press)

Italian police have launched an internal investigation after a young California man arrested in connection with the killing of a Rome police officer was handcuffed and blindfolded during interrogation.

A photo published by Italian media on Sunday showed Gabriel Christian Natale Hjorth, 18, sitting in an office of Italy’s Carabinieri police with his head bowed, his hands cuffed behind his back and a piece of cloth tied around his eyes.

“We disassociate ourselves with this kind of behavior and we are investigating who was responsible,” said a Carabinieri spokesman, who said he did not know why the American had been blindfolded.

Natale Hjorth and Finnegan Lee Elder, 19, were arrested on Friday in Rome following the stabbing death of Carabinieri officer Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, in the early hours of Friday.

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The two young men, who were high school classmates in Mill Valley near San Francisco and were reportedly vacationing in Rome, had purchased what they thought were drugs from a street dealer hours earlier, authorities said, only to find that instead of cocaine they had been sold ground-up aspirin.

To get even they allegedly stole a bag from a man they believed was an accomplice of the dealer, demanding 100 euros and a gram of cocaine for its return, police said.

The man, however, informed the police, who sent two plainclothes officers to the rendezvous.

The two officers, including Cerciello Rega, announced they were police, but Elder allegedly stabbed Cerciello Rega eight times before fleeing with Natale Hjorth, authorities said. The police said Elder later confessed after the knife was found in the hotel room the teens were sharing.

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After early reports the killer was north African, anti-migrant Italian politicians whipped up a social media storm of outrage, with Interior Minister Matteo Salvini initially describing the pair as “bastards” who deserved forced labor in jail.

After the identity of the suspects became known, Salvini kept up his aggressive tone, stating, “To whoever complains about the blindfold for the arrested person, I remind them that the only victim to cry for is a man, a son, a 35-year-old husband, a Carabinieri and a servant of the country who was killed in the line of duty by people who, if guilty, only deserve life in jail.”

Italian media have compared the case to the arrest in Italy in 2007 of American student Amanda Knox, who was accused of stabbing her apartment roommate during a drug-fueled sex game and allegedly confessed her involvement in the crime to police interrogators before she was granted a lawyer.

After four years in jail and a series of trials, Knox was acquitted in 2015.

Evidence in the latest killing in Rome appears more solid, not least because suspects have been identified by the surviving police officer who was present during the stabbing.

Both suspects are due to be kept in custody while the police investigation continues.


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