American Teens Who Face Life in Italy Go on Trial

Gabriel Natale-Hjorth and Finnegan Elder accused of murdering a cop
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 26, 2020 12:13 PM CST
American Teens Who Face Life in Italy Go on Trial
Gabriel Natale Hjorth attends the opening of the trial for the killing of Italian policeman Mario Cerciello Rega in Rome, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.   (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

Two American teens were arrested in Italy over the summer for allegedly killing a Rome police officer in the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. On Wednesday, their trial in the Italian capital began, ABC News reports. Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 19, and Finnegan Elder, now 20, face charges of aggravated murder and attempted extortion in the July 26 death of Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, a member of the country's Carabinieri paramilitary police force. Authorities say the American teens were sold crushed aspirin when they tried to buy cocaine and that they then took a backpack from the "mediator" who had arranged their meeting with the drug dealer. They allegedly demanded their money back before they would return the pack, not knowing the mediator had called the police. Cerciello Rega and a partner responded and a fight ensued; Cerciello Rega died at a nearby hospital after receiving 11 stab wounds that pierced major organs. More on the case:

  • Evidence: Natale-Hjorth and Elder were allegedly caught on surveillance video fleeing the scene and were ultimately arrested in a hotel room nearby. Police say the 7-inch combat knife used in the slaying was found behind a false panel in the room's ceiling, and that the teens confessed to the murder after being "faced with overwhelming evidence" during several hours of interrogation.
  • Controversial photo: However, a photo of Natale-Hjorth handcuffed and blindfolded caused some to wonder whether their confessions had come under duress. Italian authorities said the photo was taken before the interrogation, which took place lawfully and in the presence of defense lawyers and interpreters.

  • More controversy: The Local reports there has also been controversy surrounding possible mistranslations of a conversation Elder had with his father, and inconsistencies regarding the statements of Cerciello Rega's partner. Per AFP, the officers also allegedly violated police rules by not carrying weapons and having no backup. An ambulance delay also likely contributed to Cerciello Rega's death; the officers were not located for more than 15 minutes after calling for it.
  • Their story: Natale-Hjorth and Elder say they were acting in self-defense, believing the officers were criminals because they did not identify themselves, according to the BBC. They were undercover officers, working in plainclothes and in an unmarked car.
  • Elder's background: Both men are college students from California's Bay Area, and their families spoke to San Francisco's KGO-TV for an in-depth report last week. "We have been and are still very close," said Elder's mom of her family. But his parents acknowledge his life went on a different trajectory after a fight with a high school football teammate led to his expulsion from school in 2016; a year after that, he lost half his finger in an accident at work and ended up getting his GED rather than graduating at the new high school he had been attending.
  • How they met: Elder met Natale-Hjorth, whose father was born in Italy, at that new high school. "He has a teenager's quick temper and can be loud when he's mad. I blame that on the Italian side," says Natale-Hjorth's mother. The TV station looked at the teens' social media and the contents of their cellphones, plus spoke to their peers, and says that it seems both were fascinated by drugs, weapons, and violence.
  • The trip: Both decided, separately, to visit Europe for the summer, Natale-Hjorth after his first year at Santa Barbara City College and Elder after a rough year at San Diego Mesa College. They got in touch while there and decided to meet up in Italy.
  • The fateful night: KGO has a much more detailed rundown of all that transpired the night of the killing, including allegations that Natale-Hjorth and Elder tried to leave when they saw the officers, believing them to be associates of the drug dealer, but that the officers attacked them. "The boys were suspicious and thought that this was a setup," says an Elder family attorney. "They thought they were dealing with gangster, mobster, and mafia types."
  • The victim: Cerciello Rega had gotten married a little more than a month before the attack and had his funeral in the same church as his wedding. "I'm so heartbroken that her husband was here and now he's no longer on this earth. And I feel just an immense amount of pain when I think of her," says Elder's mom of Cerciello Rega's widow.
  • What's at stake: If convicted, Natale-Hjorth and Elder could face life in prison.
(More Italy stories.)

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