ROME — A jury convicted two American friends Wednesday in the 2019 slaying of a police officer in a tragic unraveling of a small time drug deal gone bad, sentencing them to the maximum life in prison.
The jury of two judges and six civilians 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 that he brought with him on his trip to Europe from California and that Natale-Hjorth helped him hide the knife in their hotel room. Under Italian law, an accomplice in an alleged murder can also be charged with murder even without materially doing the slaying.
The July 26, 2019, killing of the officer in 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.
For the brief final hearing before deliberations Wednesday, 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.
“I’m stressed,” Elder said to one of his lawyers. Elder fingered a crucifix he wears on a chain around his neck and kissed it before the jury went out. He also turned to his codefendant, Natale-Hjorth, and held the crucifix toward him through a glass partition, motioning heavenward.
Elder and his father crossed their fingers toward each other for good luck after the jury went into chambers.
Natale-Hjorth was greeted by his father and Italian uncle, who were present for the deliberations.
Cerciello Rega had recently returned from a honeymoon when he was assigned along with partner, officer Andrea Varriale, to follow up on a reported extortion attempt. They went in plainclothes, and didn’t carry their service pistols.
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.
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 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.
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 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, Elder’s lawyer, Borzone, argued 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.