ROME—It has been nearly six months since two American teens on a wild weekend in Rome allegedly killed a 35-year-old police officer, and a court date for their murder trial has finally been set. On Feb. 26, 2020, Finnegan Elder and Gabe Natale Hjorth will be joint defendants in a trial that, until this week, looked like it might swing their way on the basis of self-defense.
Elder, 19, is accused of plunging a 7-inch military grade knife he carried with him from the U.S. into officer Mario Cerciello Rega while Gabe Natale Hjorth, 18, battled with Rega’s partner Andrea Varriale. Both of the policemen were working undercover. Neither of them were carrying weapons or badges. They did not have backup protection, and they were acting on what seems like a favor to a man who set the Americans up with a local pusher.
The chief line of defense for Elder, who police say confessed to the crime, has always been that neither of the officers identified themselves as police when they arrived for a prearranged meeting to exchange the pusher’s backpack, which the boys stole, for around $80, which the Americans had paid to the pusher for some bad cocaine. The main defense for Natale Hjorth has been that he had no idea Elder had a knife, though reports that his fingerprints are on the ceiling panel in the hotel room the young men shared—and where the knife was found—seem to call that into question.
Elder’s self-defense claims had teeth. After all, the two Americans thought they were meeting the interloper who set them up with the pusher, who had sold them crushed aspirin instead of drugs. While stabbing someone’s vital organs a dozen times is inexcusable under any circumstance, when the Americans saw two much older men instead of the interloper or pusher, they understandably panicked. Elder says through his Italian lawyer that Rega grabbed his neck, which is what led him to grab his knife. If they didn’t know the men were cops, how could they know that they weren’t under aggressive attack, goes the line of thinking.
But just a day after the Italian prosecutors formally closed their investigation last week, asking a judge to send the case to trial immediately, a stunning new transcript has emerged. The new information comes from an Aug. 2 prison visit between Elder, his father Ethan, and their American lawyer Craig Peterson that police had surveilled. During the conversation, Elder is reported to have told his father that indeed, he did know Rega was a cop. Elder reportedly made the same admission in a phone call home in the hours after the incident occurred. “I made a mistake,” he reportedly said. “I hit a cop.”
The widely-reported transcript, which The Daily Beast also obtained from an investigative source, says Elder was explaining what happened to his dad and attorney. “When they quickly flashed their cards or whatever,” Elder said before being interrupted by his lawyer, Peterson, who the transcript says then whispered to his client, “Stay calm, stick to your statement, review it point by point, remember it. Your statement shouldn’t worry us during the interrogation,” he reportedly said before adding. “You did not see anything.”
It is unclear how a clandestinely taped conversation between a lawyer, his client and his dad, could be used in court. But details of the conversation have been leaked to the Italian press, which will inevitably jade the court of public opinion.
Elder’s Italian and American lawyers have both declined numerous requests to comment on the new transcript. But, it is clearly part of the dossier the prosecution presented to the judge against Elder and Natale Hjorth, and if it can be introduced in court, it will surely complicate their line that they acted in self-defense against unknown men they say they thought were thugs.
The case has drawn anger and questions about how Elder could carry a large knife through Europe. But it has also raised suspicion about both officers in Italy. Rega’s partner is under investigation for not carrying his weapon that evening, and the fact that the two police officers answered a late-night drug-related call with no weapons or backup continues to raise eyebrows. No one could answer exactly why the cops went instead of the pusher’s intermediary without then arresting the man for alleged involvement in selling drugs to the Americans.
The trial will pit the two Americans against each other in a joint, but separate, defense against the murder in a trial that could last many months. Both young men will face life in prison, with ample opportunity for appeal. They will remain in separate prisons in the Roman capital throughout the trial.