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Rome jury sentences 2 Bay Area men to life in prison in slaying of police officer

Murder trial defendants Gabriel Natale-Hjorth and Finnegan Lee Elder
Finnegan Lee Elder, right, shows a crucifix to Gabriel Natale-Hjorth before a jury began deliberating their fate Wednesday in a murder trial in Rome.
(Gregorio Borgia / Associated Press)

A jury in Rome on Wednesday convicted two American friends in the 2019 slaying of a police officer in a tragic unraveling of a small-time drug sting gone awry, sentencing them to life in prison.

The jury deliberated more than 12 hours before delivering the verdicts against Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, handing them Italy’s stiffest sentence.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth were found guilty of all charges: homicide, attempted extortion, assault, resisting a public official and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause. There was a gasp in the Rome courtroom as the presiding judge, Marina Finiti, read the verdict.

Prosecutors alleged that Elder stabbed Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega 11 times with a knife he brought with him on his trip to Europe from California and that Natale-Hjorth helped him hide the knife afterward in their hotel room. Elder and Natale-Hjorth, schoolmates from Mill Valley, Calif., were 19 and 18, respectively, at the time of the July 26, 2019, incident.

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The slaying of the officer from the storied Carabinieri paramilitary police corps shocked Italy. Cerciello Rega, 35, was mourned as a national hero.

The slain officer’s widow, who held a photo of her dead husband while waiting for the verdict, broke down in tears and hugged his brother, Paolo.

“His integrity was defended,” Rosa Maria Esilio said outside the courtroom, between sobs. “He was everyone’s son, everyone’s Carabinieri. He was a marvelous husband; he was a marvelous man, a servant of the state who merited respect and honor.”

The defendants were led immediately out of the courtroom after the verdicts were read. As Elder was being walked out, his father, Ethan Elder, called out, “Finnegan, I love you.” Both of his parents looked stunned.

Elder’s lawyer Renato Borzone called the verdict against his client “a disgrace for Italy.” Natale-Hjorth’s lawyer Fabio Alonzi said he was speechless.

The two Californians were allowed out of steel-barred defendant cages inside the courtroom to sit with their lawyers before the case went to the jury, which consisted of Finiti, a second judge and six civilian jurors.

“I’m stressed,” Elder said to one of his lawyers. Elder took a crucifix he wears on a chain around his neck and kissed it before the jury went out. He also turned to Natale-Hjorth and held out the crucifix to him through a glass partition, motioning upward.

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Elder and his father crossed their fingers toward each other for luck after the jury went to deliberate. Natale-Hjorth was greeted by his uncle, who lives in Italy.

Cerciello Rega had recently returned from his honeymoon when he was assigned along with a fellow plainclothes officer, Andrea Varriale, to follow up on a reported extortion attempt.

Prosecutors say that the Americans concocted a plot involving a stolen bag and cellphone after their attempt to buy cocaine with 80 euros ($96) in Rome’s Trastevere nightlife district didn’t pan out. Natale-Hjorth and Elder testified that they had paid for the cocaine but didn’t receive it.

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Both defendants contend that they acted in self-defense. During the trial, which began more than a year ago, the Americans told the court that they thought Cerciello Rega and Varriale were thugs or mobsters out to assault them on a dark, deserted street. The officers wore casual summer clothes and not uniforms, and the defendants insist that the officers never showed police badges.

Under Italian law, an accomplice in an alleged murder can also be charged with murder without materially participating in the act of killing. Prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta demanded life imprisonment for both defendants.

Varriale, who suffered a back injury in a scuffle with Natale-Hjorth while his partner grappled with Elder, testified that the officers did identify themselves as Carabinieri.

At the time of the slaying, Elder was traveling in Europe without his family, while Natale-Hjorth was spending the summer vacation with his Italian grandparents, who live near Rome. The friends met up in the Italian capital for what was supposed to be a couple of days of sightseeing and nights out.

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Prosecutors alleged that Elder thrust a seven-inch military-style attack knife repeatedly into Cerciello Rega, who bled profusely — like a “fountain,” Varriale testified — and died shortly afterward at a hospital.

Elder told the court that the heavyset Cerciello Rega was on top of him on the ground during their scuffle, and he feared that he was being strangled. Elder said he pulled out the knife and stabbed him to avoid being killed, and when the officer didn’t immediately let him go, he stabbed again.

After the stabbing, the Americans ran to their hotel room, where, according to Natale-Hjorth, Elder cleaned the knife and then asked him to hide it. Natale-Hjorth testified that he hid the knife behind a ceiling panel in their room, where it was discovered hours later by police.

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The two men had told the court that, several hours before the stabbing, they attempted to buy cocaine in the Trastevere nightlife district of Rome. With the intervention of a go-between, they paid a dealer, but instead of cocaine they received an aspirin-like tablet.

ROME (AP) — An Italian police commander says an American teenager who is under investigation for a police officer’s slaying in Rome was “illegally blindfolded” briefly before his interrogation.Carabinieri Provincial Cmdr.

Before Natale-Hjorth could confront the dealer, a separate Carabinieri patrol in the neighborhood intervened, and all scattered. The Americans snatched the go-between’s knapsack in reprisal, and used a cellphone that was inside to set up a meeting with the goal of exchanging the bag and the phone for the cash they had lost in the bad drug deal.

Meanwhile, Cerciello Rega, wearing a T-shirt and long shorts, and Varriale, in a polo shirt and jeans, headed out to follow up on what was described as a small-scale extortion attempt. They didn’t carry their service pistols.

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From practically its start, the trial largely boiled down to the word of Varriale against that of the young American visitors. Cerciello Rega’s widow, Rosa Maria Esilio, sat in the front row, often clutching a photo of her husband. Photos of the newlyweds, with Cerciello Rega in his dress uniform, were widely displayed in Italian media after the slaying.

As the trial neared its end, one of Elder’s lawyers, Borzone, argued in court that deep-set psychiatric problems, including a constant fear of being attacked, figured in the fatal stabbing. Borzone told the court that Elder saw a world filled with enemies because of his psychiatric problems and that something “short-circuited” inside him when he was confronted by the officer.


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