ROME—Two Americans have been sentenced to life in an Italian prison after a teenage vacation in Rome ended in a brutal fight that left a local police officer dead.
Finnegan Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, from California, got themselves into trouble after trying to buy cocaine during their vacation in the summer of 2019. After a botched drug deal, they killed Carabinieri officer Mario Cerciello Rega, 35.
The men were found guilty of murder, assault, killing a public official, and extortion for stealing a backpack from a drug pusher and demanding money or drugs in exchange. Elder was separately found guilty of carrying a military-grade knife, a prohibited weapon in Italy. Both young Americans will have to serve the next two months in isolation as part of the sentencing. Two female judges led six jury members to a verdict after more than 10 hours. When the verdict was read out inside a fortified bunker courtroom in a Roman prison, the young men were visibly shocked and their parents, sitting behind them, understandably shaken.
Elder was on holiday in Rome and Natale-Hjorth was visiting his grandparents at the Roman seaside when the two former classmates decided to meet up for a night of partying in Rome on July 26, 2019. Natale-Hjorth called a person he knew could find them cocaine, who set them up with a dealer, according to their own admission.
The young Americans paid around $100 for what they thought was a gram of coke, but which turned out to be crushed aspirin. Angry, they stole the backpack from the man who set up the drug deal. When the man called his phone, still inside the bag, they made a deal to return the backpack in exchange for their money back or more drugs.
But rather than meeting the Americans, the go-between called the police. Two Carabinieri officers, Rega and Andrea Varriale, met the Americans on behalf of the go-between. It’s unclear why the police chose to play along rather than arresting those involved with the sale of the drugs. The go-between has denied being a police informant.
When the Americans saw the two undercover cops rather than the man who set up the botched drug deal, they say they thought they were thugs. When Elder addressed the court during the 14-month trial, he said that in the U.S., police would never have shown up for that type of exchange, so he was led to believe the men posed a threat.
The Americans say the police attacked them first. Elder fought with Rega and Natale-Hjorth fought with Varriale. Neither officer had their service weapon or handcuffs. It’s still unclear if they had their badges. Varriale says they identified themselves as law enforcement in Italian. The Americans say they did not.
At some point, Elder pulled out a knife he had brought from the U.S. and stabbed Rega 11 times in the back and sides, implying the officer was on top of him. Rega died sometime later in a Rome emergency room.
Rega, who had just returned from his honeymoon in Madagascar after marrying his wife in the same southern Italy church where his funeral was held, was a decorated member of the Carabinieri in Rome.
Varriale was later investigated for first saying he had his service weapon, and later admitting he did not. He was put on probation for not carrying his weapon that night. The officers had also not informed central dispatch of their movements or called for backup.
Elder, who has been diagnosed with mental health issues that lead to extreme paranoia, said he feared for his life. His American lawyer, Craig Peters, said that his client had spent much of his life fearing he would be attacked by strangers. He was sure that night his worst fears had come true.
“Finn took a knife to Italy and he should not have. Finn took a knife that night to help protect him and his friend from who he thought might be thugs that might be coming to get them. And their worst suspicion is what they thought had happened had actually arrived,” Peters said.
“He stabbed a guy and that ultimately ended up in that guy dying. Those are all horrible things. His mental health issues don’t wipe out any of those issues, but they inform how we look at those issues. Finnegan, I think, has been fearful of the world for a long time because of his own mental health issues and this was just another night where he was worried about bad things happening and reacted.”
The case, which divided Italy, pitted those who see the Americans as cold-blooded assassins and those who have little trust in the police. After the murder, then-prime minister Giuseppe Conte called the death “a deep wound for the state.” And even with a verdict and sentencing, that wound may never heal.
As part of the punishment, the judge ordered the young men to pay the legal expenses and other “damages” to Cerciello’s widow and family, his police partner Varriale, and the go-between who arranged the drug deal. Elder’s Italian lawyer expressed his dismay after the sentencing. “This sentence represents a shame for Italy, with a jury that does not want to see what came out during the investigation and in the trial,” he told reporters outside the court. “I’ve never seen such an indignant thing. We will appeal.”