One of the American teenagers accused of murdering an undercover Italian police officer during a bungled drug deal was ‘illegally blindfolded’ before his interrogation.
A photo of Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 18, shows him handcuffed, with his head bowed and a scarf covering his eyes.
He spent a second night in a Rome jail Saturday with friend Finnegan Lee Elder, 19, after they were both interrogated for hours about their alleged roles in the murder of Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega.
Natale-Hjorth was said to have been blindfolded ‘for a very few minutes, four or five’ on Friday just before he was questioned about the fatal stabbing, Provincial Cmdr. Francesco Gargaro said.
Italian police say they have now launched an investigation into the incident with a spokesman confirming: ‘We disassociate ourselves with this kind of behavior and we are investigating who was responsible.’
Blindfolding of a suspect ‘is illegal. It’s not allowed,’ Gargaro said. The officer who put the blindfold on committed a ‘mistake’ but did so to prevent Natale-Hjorth from seeing documents related to the investigation, the commander said.
Natale-Hjorth had been brought in handcuffs to the station from his hotel, Gargaro said. He was interrogated by police and prosecutors without a lawyer there since he hadn’t been formally detained as a suspect and Italian law doesn’t allow an attorney’s presence at that stage, the commander said.
The officer was transferred to a different unit, Gargaro said. The Carabinieri were also investigating who took the photo and how it was leaked. Lawyers for the two Americans were not immediately available for comment.
Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth was blindfolded ‘for a very few minutes, four or five’ on Friday just before he was questioned about the fatal stabbing of officer Mario Cerciello Rega
Finnegan Elder, 19, left, confessed to fatally stabbing 35-year-old paramilitary policeman Mario Cerciello Rega on Friday night, police said. A second US citizen, Gabriel Christian Natale Hjorth, 18, right, was also present at the time of the fatal stabbing
Paramilitary policeman Mario Cerciello Rega, who had just returned to work from his honeymoon, suffered eight stab wounds and later died in hospital from his injuries
It comes as the family of one of the teens accused say they are ‘shocked and dismayed’ after their football playing son and his ‘delinquent’ friend were arrested in Rome.
The young men, arrested at a four-star hotel on Friday, were high school classmates in Mill Valley, a wealthy suburb 10 miles north of San Francisco en route to the towering redwood trees in Muir Woods National Park.
The town of 14,000 is a desirable destination for families who are drawn to its safe, leafy neighborhoods and reputable public schools, and the two boys graduated from Tamalpais High School in 2018.
Elder played varsity football at Sacred Heart High School, in San Francisco while played Natale-Hjorth played Lacrosse at Tamalpais High.
The pair are now said to go to Santa Barbara City College and Natale-Hjorth invited Elder to Italy, where he has family and visits every summer.
Elder’s neighbors say they are not shocked by their arrest. Two told KPIX5 how Elder had been sick in front of their home after getting drunk on several occasions.
Graduate Matt Kearney told ABC7 of Natale Hjorth: ‘I always saw him as a bit sketchy, but nothing this bad.’
Another classmate, who did not want to be named, said: ‘When Gabe is on drugs, he’s insane. He has a lot of anger.
‘He’s known around here as a drug dealer. I feel like he thinks he can get away with everything. He’s gotten away with so much trouble in Marin.’
And former classmate Tommy Flynn said Natale-Hjorth was a ‘bad guy’.
He told KPIX5: ‘I’ve kind of always known that he’s a bad guy. He would come up in stories of just like activities that you wouldn’t want your kids getting into. He’s kind of been known around town as a delinquent character.’
But Elder’s neighbor Gloria Keeley said: ‘I’ve known Finn since he was born and I’m in shock. He’s one of the nicest neighbors. My vision of Finn, I don’t see him doing that.’
‘We are shocked and dismayed at the events that have been reported, but we have very little independent information about these events,’ Elder’s family said in a statement. ‘We have not been able to have any communication with our son.’
The family expressed condolences to the policeman’s family and ‘all of those who have been impacted by this tragedy.’
At a house listed in Natale-Hjorth’s name, a young man who answered the door yelled ‘No!’ when an Associated Press reporter asked to speak to her.
Investigators contended in written statements Saturday that the pair had confessed to their roles in the grisly slaying.
The pair are now said to go to Santa Barbara City College and Natale-Hjorth, pictured, invited Elder to Italy, where he has family and visits every summer
Elder played varsity football at Sacred Heart High School in San Francisco
Two neighbors said Elder had been sick in front of their home after getting drunk on several occasions
Rega, a member of the storied Carabinieri paramilitary corps, was stabbed eight times, allegedly by one of the teens, leaving him bleeding on a street close to the teens’ upscale hotel near Rome’s Tiber River.
Lawyer Francesco Codini said his client Elder was ‘worn out’ after exercising his right not to respond to questions during a detention hearing.
Natale-Hjorth’s lawyer didn’t speak to reporters waiting outside the jail after the hearing.
Police said the teens were apparently vacationing in the Italian capital without family members.
In the detention order, Elder is described as repeatedly stabbing the 35-year-old officer, who had just returned to duty a few days earlier from his honeymoon.
Investigators said Cerciello Rega, along with another Carabinieri officer, were both in plainclothes when they confronted the Americans about 3am Friday in the wake of a drug deal gone wrong.
Natale-Hjorth was described in the document as having repeatedly punched Cerciello Rega’s partner.
Under Italian law, persons participating in a killing, but who didn’t actually carry out the slaying itself, risk being charged with murder.
Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, who was stabbed to death in Rome early Friday
Both suspects are also being investigated for attempted extortion.
Cerciello Rega, beloved for his charity work with the homeless and the ailing, was praised as a hero for trying to help keep Rome’s streets safe.
Photos of the officer, wearing his uniform for his wedding and showing off his wedding band as he sat next to his beaming bride, dominated the front pages of many Italian newspapers Saturday.
Parents with their children left bouquets of flowers at the bloodstained site.
Authorities vowed that justice would be done.
‘Hoping that the killer of our poor Carabiniere never gets out of prison, I remind do-gooders that in the United States, whoever kills risks the death penalty,’ tweeted Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is also in charge of state police, another national Italian police corps. ‘I’m not saying we’ll get to that, but yes to a life in prison (in labor, obviously).’
Like all European Union countries, Italy doesn’t have the death penalty.
Italian state radio reported Sunday the judge ruled that the Americans stay in jail while the investigation goes forward.
Suspects deemed a flight risk are often denied release. Italian police had said the two teens were preparing to leave Italy later on Friday.
An Italian investigator said the pair had snatched the bag of a drug dealer in Rome after the man apparently gave them a different substance instead of the cocaine they were seeking. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the probe is continuing.
In a statement, the Carabinieri contended that the Americans demanded cash and cocaine to return the knapsack. They said the bag, with a phone inside, was snatched from an Italian man. The Americans, police said, ‘threatened to not give it back to him without payment of 100 euros and a gram of cocaine.’
The bag’s owner reported the theft, and the plainclothes officers were sent to the site of the rendezvous to allegedly turn over the bag for ransom, the statement said.
The Americans, ‘even though the officers identified themselves as being Carabinieri, didn’t hesitate to engage in a struggle, culminating in the mortal wounding’ of the policeman, the statement said.
The teens, arrested at a four-star hotel room Friday, were high school classmates in Mill Valley, a wealthy suburb 10 miles north of San Francisco. Elder is pictured left, Natale-Hjorth right
A man drops flowers where Carabiniere Mario Cerciello Rega died after being stabbed eight times as he and a colleague tried to arrest the two men following a complaint for theft
Italian police officers carry guns, but it was unclear why they weren’t used.
The Carabinieri said surveillance cameras and witnesses helped them identify and find the Americans. While searching their hotel room, police said, investigators found a long knife hidden inside the room’s dropped ceiling. Also found were clothes worn during the attack, police said.
The Carabinieri statement said the Americans during their interrogation and confronted with ‘hard evidence,’ had ‘confessed to their blame.’
This case could spark comparisons to another spectacular slaying investigation involving a young American in Italy.
Amanda Knox was an American university student in Perugia when she was initially accused in the 2007 stabbing death of her British roommate Meredith Kercher. She was convicted but ultimately acquitted.
Italian media focused on Knox, largely ignoring the fate of the Briton. In contrast, a decade later, the murder victim is an Italian policeman at a time when Salvini’s law-and-order right-wing party is soaring in popularity.
‘Hero of the Fatherland, justice for Mario,’ read a note, signed by the ‘neighborhood citizens’ and left near the scene of his death.