Italy judge: Teen claims he knifed officer in self-defense

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The coffin containing the body of Carabinieri’s officer Mario Cerciello Rega is carried to his funeral in his hometown of Somma Vesuviana, near Naples, southern Italy, Monday, July 29, 2019. Two American teenagers were jailed in Rome on Saturday as authorities investigate their alleged roles in the fatal stabbing of the Italian police officer on a street near their hotel. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

ROME (AP) — Two American teenagers jailed in Rome in the slaying of an Italian police officer showed “total absence of self-control,” making them highly dangerous to society, a judge concluded in ordering them kept behind bars while the investigation continues.

Judge Chiara Gallo said in the ruling, obtained Monday by The Associated Press, that there were “grave” indications that the California teens carried out the slaying of Carabinieri Deputy Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega, who was stabbed 11 times Friday after he and a fellow plainclothes officer confronted the Americans as part of an investigation into a cocaine deal the two were allegedly involved in. He died shortly afterward at a hospital.

Gallo cited testimony from witnesses, including the officer’s surviving partner, as well as a porter and a doorman in the Rome hotel where the teens were staying and the Americans’ own, sometimes conflicting accounts, to investigators.

Finnegan Lee Elder, 19, and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 18, were taken into custody hours after the slaying by police who said a search of their hotel room found the alleged weapon, a military-style attack knife, hidden inside the room’s drop ceiling.

“It can’t be forgotten that the two were looking for drugs in the course of the evening and that both had drunk alcohol as they themselves declared,” the judge said in in her ruling, issued late Saturday. “It’s a matter of circumstances which, evaluated together with their conduct, testifies to the total absence of self-control and critical ability of the two suspects, and, as a result, makes plain their elevated social danger.”

The judge said Elder told authorities he stabbed Cerciello Rega because he feared he was being strangled, but noted the teen didn’t have any marks on his neck indicating an attempted strangulation. He said Elder also told investigators the officer never pulled out his pistol.

She also cited contradictions in the teens’ account: Elder told investigators that Natale-Hjorth hid the knife in the drop ceiling, while Natale-Hjorth told investigators he wasn’t aware of the stabbing until Elder woke him hours later in their hotel room and told them he had “used a knife” and then washed it.

Investigators said Saturday both teens had admitted their roles in Cerciello Rega’s death. Under Italian law, anyone who participated in a slaying can face murder charges.

Elder, the judge said, told investigators he didn’t realize the two men were police officers and believed they were sent by an Italian man whose knapsack and cellphone they had stolen a few hours earlier while trying to arrange a drug deal.

That man, identified as Sergio Brugiatelli, told investigators that two men with American accents approached him in Rome’s Trastevere district asking if he had 80 euros ($90) worth of cocaine to sell, according to the judge’s order. Brugiatelli said he didn’t, but accompanied one of the teens, a blond he later identified as Natale-Hjorth, to a dealer in the neighborhood. Brugiatelli said the other teen, whom he later identified as Elder, sat waiting on a bench where Brugiatelli had left his bag and a cellphone.

According to Brugiatelli, the “blond youth” gave the dealer money for the drugs, but at the sight of approaching police officers, everyone scattered. He later told investigators that when he returned to the bench a friend told him that Elder had run off with his bag.

Brugiatelli said he dialed his cellphone number and one of the teens answered and demanded he bring 80 or 100 euros plus a gram of cocaine to a street near their hotel if he wanted the bag back. After police were informed of the extortion attempt, Cerciello Rega and his partner, Andrea Varriale, were sent to the rendezvous point, the judge said.

Gallo noted that the teens claimed the officers didn’t show identification. But, she said, Varriale told investigators both officers showed their badges and identified themselves as police. “But the pair, even before we could carry out any kind of check attacked us physically,” she quoted Varriale as saying.

She said Varriale told investigators Cerciello Rega yelled as he was struggling with Elder, “Stop, we’re Carabinieri. Enough.” He said Natale-Hjorth kicked, scratched and punched him to break away then both teens fled. Varriale said he saw his partner bleeding profusely from his left side. “Before falling to the ground, he told me, ‘They stabbed me,'” the judge quoted Varriale as saying.

Cerciello Rega was eulogized Monday as a hero at a funeral in his hometown, Somma Vesuviana, in the same church where the 35-year-old officer had been married six weeks earlier.

Italy’s military chaplain, Archbishop Santo Marciano, said in his eulogy that Cerciello Rega lived and died to safeguard others’ lives, adding that the officer was known for spending his off-duty hours as a volunteer dishing out hot meals to the homeless in Rome’s main police station.

Meanwhile, police and prosecutors were investigating what was described as the illegal blindfolding of Natale-Hjorth after Italian newspapers published a photo Sunday of the teen with what appeared to be a scarf covering his eyes and his hands handcuffed behind his back as he sat in a chair at a police station.

Rome Provincial Cmdr. Francesco Gargaro told AP the blindfold was illegal and lasted only a few minutes, before the young man was brought to another room for interrogation.The officer who put the blindfold on was being transferred to other duties, while police investigated who took and distributed the photo, authorities said.

Rome’s prosecutor general, Giovanni Salvi, said in a statement that a lawyer was present during the teens’ interrogation, which was recorded and transcribed and that neither suspect was blindfolded or handcuffed while they were questioned.

On Monday, Natale-Hjorth’s lawyer, Emiliano Sisinni, said his client hadn’t said anything about being blindfolded and he became aware of the blindfold only after seeing the photo in the Italian media.

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said that while “there is no doubt that the victim of this tragedy is our Mario,” he praised the Italian police for transferring the officer who put the blindfold on Natale-Hjorth.

Treating a suspect that way “doesn’t reflect our principles and juridical values,” said Conte, who is a lawyer.

Meanwhile, at the San Francisco home of Elder’s father, a sign reading “Please respect family’s privacy do not disturb” hung on a gate Monday in front of the house. When a reporter rang the doorbell, a man appeared behind the gate and asked, “Do I know you?” and then pointed to the sign and went back into the house.

In a statement, the Elder family said they had been informed Monday that a U.S. government official in Rome had visited with Elder. “We continue to gather facts about his case through his legal representatives,” the family said.

Police in Mill Valley, California, where the suspects went to high school and had lived for a time, said neither teen had an arrest record or turned up in reports of family domestic violence.

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Associated Press writers Janie Har and Samantha Maldonado in San Francisco contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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