ROME—Exactly seven months to the day after Americans Finnegan Elder and Gabriel Natale got caught up in a drug deal that went horribly wrong, they were brought into a packed Roman courtroom a few feet away from the widow of the man they are accused of killing.
It’s a saga that started on a warm night last July when Elder and Natale, whose father is Italian, bought aspirin instead of cocaine and demanded their money back from an interloper who set up the deal. Angry, they stole the interloper’s backpack and made a deal to get their money—and real cocaine—in return. But Deputy Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega of Italy’s paramilitary Carabinieri force and his partner Andrea Varriale met them in plainclothes instead.
What happened next is a matter of life and death, and perception, it seems. Nobody disagrees that a fight between the cops and the young Americans ensued and Rega bled to death from 11 wounds from Elder’s 7-inch military-style knife. But the events leading up to the incident and the circumstances surrounding it are quite another matter.
Elder and Natale, who are being tried together but with separate defense teams, say they thought they were being jumped by “mafia types,” according to Elder’s lawyer Renato Borzone. The teens say the cops didn’t tell them who they were, showed no badges, and essentially attacked them.
Varriale says the teens jumped them “rapidly and aggressively” and that Elder quickly stabbed his partner.
The truth clearly lies somewhere in between these two scenarios, but it may be the Italian first responders who are at least partly responsible for Rega’s death. After just 32 seconds, the fight ended and the Americans ran back to their hotel room to hide the knife, which police found in a ceiling tile, and Varriele called the dispatcher. But it took a full 15 minutes for an ambulance to respond to the scene and Rega bled to death from the wounds, according to a documentary by Bay area ABC7 called “32 Seconds.” No single wound caused his death.
The documentary also reveals that police were given footage from a surveillance camera on a bank with a direct shot to the scene, but chose not to include it in the police report. The report, which The Daily Beast obtained, says the footage was “unusable.”
Rega’s wounds are all on his sides and back, which Elder’s lawyers say are consistent with the story that the older, bigger man jumped him and he was fighting back. Rega weighed a full 100 pounds more than Elder and the defense argues that had their client attacked the cop first, there would be wounds on his chest. There are not, according to the autopsy.
Four police officers involved in the initial investigation into the death of one of their own are now on administrative leave: one for blindfolding Natale before the initial interrogation, one for filming it and leaking it to the press, one for lying that Varriale gave him his weapon at the hospital when neither Varriale nor Rega had weapons or badges or even handcuffs on them, and Varriale himself.
The trial, which is expected to last many months, kicked off with a wall of television cameras and reporters in the courtroom. Both boys had short military-style haircuts after seven months in jail. Elder wore a plaid flannel shirt, which Italians quickly pointed out was too casual for court. Natale wore a white shirt under a sweater.
The female judge heard more than 100 legal arguments in the day-long trial and ruled on requests from a number of civil parties allowed under Italy’s often complicated judicial system. Among them, she has allowed the interloper whose bag was stolen to take part in the trial.
She also accepted the request of the officer’s widow, Rosa Maria Rega, who issued a statement to the press on the eve of the trial, calling for justice for the “barbaric assassination” of her new husband who had just returned to duty after their honeymoon. Now she will be able to have her own legal team in place to defend her dead husband’s honor should the defense blame him for his own death.
And the judge also asked for a copy of a surveillance video from a jailhouse visit between Elder and his parents and an American lawyer that was translated inaccurately and leaked to the press. In the leaked translation, Elder is said to have admitted he knew Rega was a cop. In the actual version, translated correctly, he said no such thing.
Elder’s American lawyer, Craig Peters, issued a statement to The Daily Beast after the trial ended. “We are grateful that this process is finally moving forward and we hope that this trial can stay focused on the facts of what happened that night,” he wrote. “We look forward to the truth coming out, and to Finn coming home.”
The trial will resume March 9.