ROME—One of the two Americans who admit to killing Italian Carabinieri police officer Mario Cerciello Rega in Rome in 2019, after a drug deal went horribly wrong, says he watched his friend wash the murder weapon but did not know why it was dirty at the time.
Gabe Natale, now 21, told a court here that on the late July night he and Finnegan Elder, now 20, stole a drug dealer’s backpack after being sold crushed aspirin instead of cocaine, the two scuffled with men who said they were police but who did not show a badge.
Natale says the two officers jumped them from behind and that he fought with officer Andrea Varriale while Elder took on officer Rega. “Varriale, before ending up on the ground, said ‘Carabinieri,’” Natale, who speaks Italian, told the court. “I heard this word and I know what it meant, but it didn’t seem possible to me that they were Carabinieri. They were dressed normally. They didn’t pull out a badge, if one jumps on you saying ‘Carabinieri’ you don’t expect it.”
Varriale has testified that they identified themselves as Carabinieri but that they did not have service weapons or badges because they were working undercover. The police also did not ask for backup, which is unusual in calls relating to drug deals. Varriale is under investigation separately for lying to his superiors about that evening.
The two Americans then fled the scene to their hotel nearby, where Natale says they heard an ambulance but did not, at that moment, connect the sirens to their fight. “We went back to the hotel room and I heard an ambulance siren but I didn’t want to think it was because of what happened,” he said. “As soon as we got back, Elder went into the bathroom and took out his knife and washed it, he told me he had to clean it.”
Elder, who has confessed and apologized for fatally stabbing Rega a dozen times with his military-grade knife, says he did not think he was fighting with a law-enforcement official. Natale previously said that he had no idea Elder had a knife and that he did not know Rega was stabbed.
In court this week, Natale said he did not notice blood, even though investigators say clothing found in the hotel room when the then-teens were arrested as they planned flights back to the U.S. were bloody. “I didn’t understand anything anymore,” Natale said on the witness stand. “Elder was very vague. And after he got out of the bathroom, he had the knife stuck in a towel and he told me I had to find a place to hide it.”
Natale then said he noticed that one of the ceiling panels in the hotel was moving. “At that point, I took a chair, I opened the panel and Elder threw the knife in,” he said when asked why his fingerprints were on the ceiling panel. “Me, I never touched the knife. I didn’t understand how it all happened. I asked Elder so many times why, but he didn’t tell me it was serious, but that he had used it to defend himself in a superficial way.”
Natale, who has distanced himself from Elder’s confession, told the court, “I just knew that something had gone wrong but in a way that I could not imagine.”
Natale did admit that he is the one who concocted the plan to exchange the stolen backpack for money or cocaine after he found a phone in the bag. He said he called the phone, which belonged to an interloper who had arranged the botched drug deal. He said that when he called, the interloper “was very cooperative because he wanted the backpack back.”
He then arranged a meeting to return the bag for the $80 they spent on what turned out to not be cocaine. He told the court he asked Elder if he wanted to come along for the exchange and Elder got dressed to go. “I didn’t know he had the knife with him,” Natale said. When they reached the rendezvous location, Rega and Varriale confronted them, a fight broke out and Rega was stabbed to death.
Elder previously told the court, “I took a man’s life, I took a husband away from his wife, I broke a bond between brothers and I took a son away from his mother.”
The two face life in prison if convicted.