Two American teens suspected of killing an Italian police officer allegedly pointed fingers at each other when they were first questioned by investigators.
Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 18, and Finnegan Lee Elder, 19, former high school classmates from Mill Valley, California, were arrested in connection with the death of Deputy Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega on Friday in Rome.
Hjorth, who classmates described as ‘a drug dealer’, and Elder, who was described as ‘dodgy’, are accused of stabbing the officer to death when he arrived to investigate what is thought to have been a drug deal gone wrong.
The suspects were arrested hours after Cerciello Rega, a member of the Italian Carabinieri paramilitary police force, was found dead with eight stab wounds near Rome’s Tiber River.
The pair initially blamed each other during questioning, police said, but have now accepted their guilt.
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Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 18 (pictured after his arrest), and 19-year-old Finnegan Lee Elder have been accused of stabbing an Italian police officer to death. The pair allegedly pointed the finger at each-other after their arrest
Investigators determined that Elder (left) was the one responsible for the stabbing after he recognized the murder weapon as his own. While Elder was attacking Cerciello Rega, Natale-Hjorth (right) allegedly punched the officer’s partner repeatedly
Detectives say Elder and Natale-Hjorth had been trying to buy drugs outside the hostel where they were staying when someone sold them a fake substance.
They then allegedly robbed a man of his backpack and demanded that he pay them ‘100 euros and 1 gram of cocaine’ to get his property back. The man agreed but promptly contacted police about the extortion attempt, officials said.
The robbery victim is not believed to be the man who allegedly sold the teens fake drugs, and it remains unclear whether he was connected to the dealer.
Cerciello Rega and his partner were both in plainclothes when they responded to the complaint and confronted the suspects and a struggle ensued.
Cerciello Rega, a member of the famed Italian Carabinieri paramilitary police force, was found dead with eight stab wounds near Rome’s Tiber River at around 3am Friday
Elder allegedly stabbed Cerciello Rega eight times while Natale-Hjorth allegedly punched the partner repeatedly, according to a police report.
The detention order said Natale-Hjorth, who can understand Italian, confirmed that Cerciello Rega identified himself as a Carabinieri officer, while Elder, who is identified as the stabber, doesn’t speak the language and denied knowing who the officer was.
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.
Officers said Elder was identified as the stabber after saying that he recognized the murder weapon and that it belonged to him.
The Carabinieri statement said the Americans during their interrogation and confronted with ‘hard evidence,’ had ‘confessed to their blame.’
Both suspects could face murder charges and are also being investigated for attempted extortion.
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.
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.
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).’
Elder (left) and Natale-Hjorth (right), were arrested in a hotel room hours after the murder (pictured) where police found the murder weapon stashed in the ceiling, and clothes the pair were wearing during the attack
On Sunday a photo emerged of Natale-Hjorth handcuffed with a scarf covering his eyes inside a police station.
Provincial Cmdr Francesco Gargaro said the suspect was blindfolded ‘for a very few minutes, four or five’ on Friday just before he was questioned about the fatal stabbing.
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.
The 18-year-old 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.
Photos of Cerciello Rega wearing his uniform at his wedding and showing off his wedding band as he sat next to his beaming bride dominated the front pages of many Italian newspapers
Cerebiello Rega’s murder made international headlines and sent shock waves all the way to the suspects’ hometown of Mill Valley, a wealthy suburb 10 miles north of San Francisco en route to the towering redwood trees in Muir Woods National Par.
The town of 14,000 is a desirable destination for families who are drawn to its safe, leafy neighborhoods and reputable public schools.
The two boys graduated from Tamalpais High School in 2018 and were reportedly enrolled at Santa Barbara City College.
Natale-Hjorth invited Elder to Italy, where he has family and visits every summer.
Elder’s family has said they are ‘shocked and dismayed’ at the news of his arrest, while many of the teen’s neighbors say they are not shocked. 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.’
Former classmate Tommy Flynn said of Natale-Hjorth: ‘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.
Hundreds of people turned out to honor Cerciello Rega outside a chapel in Rome on Sunday
The slain officer’s new wife, Rosa Maria, wept and placed her hands on his coffin as it was carried into the church on Sunday
A funeral will be held Monday at the same chapel where Rosa Maria married Cerciello Rega on June 19 in his hometown of Somma Vesuviana. Forty-three days later, the newlywed wife will return to the church a widow
Hundreds of people turned out to honor Cerciello Rega as his body was brought to a chapel in central Rome to lie in state on Sunday.
The slain officer’s new wife, Rosa Maria, wept and placed her hands on his coffin as it was carried inside.
A funeral will be held Monday at the same chapel where she married Cerciello Rega on June 19 in his hometown of Somma Vesuviana.
Forty-three days later, Rosa Maria will return to the church a widow.
Somma Vesuviana Mayor Salvatore Di Sarno has proclaimed Monday to be a ‘day of mourning’ for the city near Naples.
Cerciello Rega, 35, had just returned to duty after his honeymoon in Madagascar when he was stabbed.
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.
Flowers, keepsakes and condolence letters have accumulated at a makeshift memorial outside the Carabinieri headquarters. Station commander Sandro Ottaviani told reporters Cerciello Rega was a beloved member of the force who ‘always thought about his neighbors, both during the service shifts and when he didn’t wear the uniform’.
‘He used to make pilgrimages to Lourdes and Loreto to help the suffering people every week,’ Ottaviani said, referring to two major Catholic pilgrimage sites. ‘Without telling anyone, he volunteered. Not only does a brave Carabinieri die, but a great man.’
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called his death a ‘deep wound for the State’ and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini praised the officer as a ‘hero’.