ROME—Italian Carabinieri police revealed for the first time at a press conference here on Tuesday that Americans Finnegan Elder, 19, and Gabe Natale, 18, cried when they heard that the police officer they allegedly attacked had died.
“Dead? Dead? Really dead?” Natale is reported to have said when officers told them that Mario Cerciello Rega was deceased.
Police also say they were trailing the Americans when the two allegedly bought cocaine from a local pusher they met through a contact late last Thursday. The San Francisco natives were duped, spending around $110 for what ended up being crushed aspirin. It was then that Rega and his partner Andrea Varriale, working undercover, first noticed the Americans. The police were just ending their shift.
Rega had forgotten his weapon at home that day, and the two officers stayed around and watched the purchase unfold. The Americans then left and the cops stayed and kept an eye on the pusher, according to the account given at the police press conference.
Then, when the Americans realized they had been tricked, they returned to steal the bag from their contact who set them up with the pusher. The contact, widely thought to be a police informant, then called the emergency police line to say his bag had been stolen. Clearly aware the cops were watching, he said the perpetrators were “North Africans” because he didn't want the undercover cops to tie him to the American cocaine deal.
A short time later, when the Americans arrived wearing hoodies despite the 90-degree heat, Rega and Varriale stepped in to question them. The teens thought they would be meeting their contact to give him back his bag in exchange for a gram of real cocaine and the $110 they lost on the aspirin.
Varriale says the two police officers immediately identified themselves as “Carabinieri.” The young men instead say the officers did not say they were "police" and did not show any badge. According to the court documents tied to the interrogation, Elder than says that Rega grabbed Elder near the neck. They say they thought they were being ambushed by thugs sent by the pusher and their contact.
A street fight among the four ensued and at some point Elder is alleged to have taken out his 7-inch military-style knife, stabbing Rega 11 times in his vital organs. The Italian police term this a military-style attack. At the same time, Natale is alleged to have gone after Varriale with his bare hands. When Rega hit the ground, his last words were, “They are killing me.” Then the Americans ran off.
Varriale told investigators that he did have his side arm, despite earlier reports to the contrary, but that Italian law prohibits police from shooting at suspects as they run away. He quickly turned his attention to his dying partner. There were four back-up cars in the area who responded in minutes. But Rega died of his stab wounds before anyone could save him.
Police then found the Americans at their nearby hotel where they had cleaned and hidden Elder’s knife in the ceiling tile. They took the teens in separate police cars and the two have not seen each other since.
Natale was photographed blindfolded, sitting in a chair with his hands cuffed behind his back and a couple of officers near him. Police on Tuesday clarified that they have identified the officer who illegally blindfolded him and put him on administrative duty and clarified that Natale was only blindfolded before he was questioned, not during the interrogation. The police also said the young men had the assistance of court-appointed lawyers, interpreters and that the questioning was taped.
Elder and Natale are still getting their defense teams in place. Elder's family told The Daily Beast in a statement that U.S. consular officials finally visited the prison after having earlier been denied access.
Now police have up to six months to indict the Americans, and if they do not have a solid case by then, they could ask for another six months. The young men will not be allowed to plea bargain for a lighter sentence. Their options are to plead guilty or innocent. If they fight the charges, the trials could last years and will no doubt be a spectacle, showcasing potential police mistakes such as the blindfolded suspect and the undercover cop without his gun, but this will play against another example of what is already referred to as “Americans gone wild.”
The fact that is inescapable, however, is that a police officer lost his life over a gram of powdered aspirin and $110.