2 American men sentenced to life for killing Italian police officer

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Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, right, talks to his co-defendant Finnegan Lee Elder, before a jury began deliberating their fate as they are on trial for the slaying of an Italian plainclothes police officer on a street near the hotel where they were staying while on vacation in Rome in summer 2019, in Rome, Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

ROME (AP) — A jury in Rome on Wednesday convicted two friends from the San Francisco Bay Area in the 2019 slaying of a police officer in a drug sting gone awry, sentencing them to life in prison.

The jury delivered 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 indicted on charges of homicide, attempted extortion, assault, resisting a public official and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause.

Prosecutors alleged that Elder stabbed Vice Bridgadier 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 in their hotel room.

The July 26, 2019 slaying of the officer from the storied Carabinieri paramilitary police corps shocked Italy. Cerciello Rega, 35, was mourned as a national hero.

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

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

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

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

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

Both defendants contended they acted in self-defense.

During the trial, which began on Feb. 26, 2020, the Americans told the court they thought that 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 insisted the officers never showed police badges.

Under Italian law, an accomplice in an alleged murder can also be charged with murder even without materially doing the slaying. Prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta has demanded life imprisonment for both defendants.

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

At the time of the slaying, Elder was 19 and traveling through Europe without his family, while Natale-Hjorth, then 18, was spending the summer vacation with his Italian grandparents, who live near Rome. Former schoolmates from the San Francisco Bay area, the two had met up in Rome for what was supposed to be couple of days of sightseeing and nights out.

Prosecutors alleged that Elder thrust a seven-inch (18-centimeter) military-style attack knife repeatedly into Cerciello Rega, who bled profusely, like a “fountain,” Varriale had testified, and died shortly after in hospital.

Elder told the court that the heavy-set Cerciello Rega, scuffling with him, was on top of him on the ground, 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.

The defendants 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.

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.

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

As the trial neared its end, one of Elder’s defense lawyers, Renato 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 his client saw a world filled with enemies due to psychiatric problems and that something “short-circuited” when Elder was confronted by the officer.

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