ROME—As the two young American men convicted of fatally stabbing an Italian police officer in 2019 pleaded for their lives in an appellate court on Thursday, another court heard how rogue cops wanted them severely beaten or even “dissolved in acid” in the hours after the slaying.
Finnegan Elder and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth were 19 and 18 when Carabinieri officer Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, died of 11 knife wounds inflicted by Elder on a cobblestone street in Rome in July 2019. Rega, working undercover with his partner Andrea Varriale, had tried to retrieve a backpack the Americans admit to stealing from a drug deal interloper after they were given crushed aspirin instead of cocaine they bought.
The Americans were sentenced to life in prison last May, and their automatic appeal began in Rome on Thursday. But the day before, a separate trial was underway against two officials accused of abusing their authority in connection with the teens' arrest. One was an official who illegally blindfolded Natale-Hjorth shortly after he was arrested, and another was the officer who sent a photo of the blindfolded teen around.
That trial revealed WhatsApp messages among four other Carabinieri officials who urged each other to kill the boys in a jailhouse hit. “Beat them to death,” one message said. “Dissolve them in acid,” another urged. A particularly disturbing message even said, “Do him like Cucchi”—a reference to the 2009 murder of Stefano Cucchi, a young man who died while in custody for a drug deal. Two police officers were eventually sentenced to 12 years in prison for manslaughter in his death.
Italy’s justice minister said a full investigation into the four officers who exchanged the messages would be conducted.
The Americans are appealing the sentence based on the circumstances that led up to Rega’s death. As the undercover cops approached the then teens, a fight broke out and Elder admits he pulled out his military grade knife and fatally stabbed Rega. Elder and Natale-Hjorth say the cops—who did not have weapons or badges—jumped them first and they had no idea they were law enforcement officers. Varriale testified in court that the kids attacked them unprovoked. No surveillance footage of the incident has ever been entered into evidence, despite a bank camera pointing directly at the scene. That footage was turned over to police, according to the bank. But they determined it was “irrelevant” in the case.
A photo of Natale-Hjorth blindfolded in police custody that made headlines around the world was determined to have been taken by Varriale, the dead cop’s partner. Defense lawyers for the Americans say the image suggests the key witness in the crime had access to one of the suspects before they were even officially charged with the murder.
Varriale has been punished for lying about having his weapon and badge at the time of the fatal encounter, and the Americans’ lawyers are expected to argue in their appeal that he also lied on the stand when he said the Americans attacked the cops first. All of Rega’s knife wounds were on his back, which Elder's defense attorney says proves the cop was on top of him, and that he acted in self defense.
One of the big questions in the case has always been why the two undercover officers never called for back up or alerted the dispatcher where they were going as they worked to recover a stolen backpack involved in a drug deal. It also remains unclear why they had no badges or weapons.
Elder’s lawyer said in a statement to The Daily Beast that “the truth will come out” in the appeal. The Americans have separate defense teams but are appealing together. They will argue that the judge exhibited bias in favor of law enforcement when punishing the young men.
“The truth of what really happened that night is already in the documents collected during the first instance trial,” Renato Borzone told reporters before the appeal. “You just need to want to see it.”