ROME–The criminal case against two American teens from California’s Bay Area who are accused of fatally stabbing an Italian police officer here in July has just taken a truly Italian twist.
On Wednesday, Italian police concluded their own internal investigation into three police officers who are now facing charges that could jeopardize the case against 19-year-old Finnegan Elder and 18-year-old Gabe Natale Hjorth. Elder allegedly confessed to stabbing the officer, Mario Rega Cerciello. But he says he did so in self defense because neither Cerciello nor his partner that night identified themselves as police officers by showing weapons or badges. Hjorth also says he was manhandled during the interrogation, as shown by a photo of him blindfolded in custody.
Officer Fabio Manganaro is accused of using excessive measures and abuse of office for blindfolding Natale Hjorth when he was in custody being questioned about the murder. Officer Silvio Pellegrino is accused of circulating the photo of the blindfolded American, which was disseminated widely in the press.
Police say Pellegrino circulated the images on “at least two WhatsApp chats,” causing what they say was “unjust damage” to the case against Natale Hjorth. Pellegrini is also accused of abuse of office for relaying information to the press and other police officers about the Americans allegedly searching for cocaine, which, they say, compromised the investigation. It is unclear what Pellegrini’s motive might have been in making a move that undermines the investigation by Italian police into the murder of one of their own officers.
Another officer, Sandro Ottaviani, is accused of forgery for falsifying an official document to make it appear Cerciello and Varriale were carrying weapons. Ottaviani allegedly told his superiors that the officers had their government-issue weapons the night of the murder, when, in fact, they did not.
Cerciello was killed when he and his police partner met the Americans to retrieve a backpack they allegedly stole from a many who had lined them up with a pusher. They had expected to buy cocaine, and had spent about $80, only to discover they’d been sold crushed aspirin instead. So they stole the go-between’s bag, with a phone still in it. According to police, he called the phone, and the Americans set up a meeting to exchange the bag for the money they’d spent and for some real cocaine. But when the Americans went to the rendezvous they were met by Cerciello and his partner.
That these cops stepped in to help a drug pusher and his shill over an $80 drug deal has raised eyebrows across Italy, with the general consensus that one or both were police informants. Neither the go-between nor the pusher has been arrested for selling or abetting the sale of drugs.
When the police officers met the Americans to retrieve the bag, a fight ensued and Cerciello was stabbed with a 7-inch military grade knife that Elder had brought from the U.S., according to a police report seen by The Daily Beast.
Elder allegedly confessed to the stabbing, which he said was in self defense after Cerciello grabbed his neck. Hjorth has said through his attorney that he did not know Elder was armed, despite the fact that police say his fingerprints were found on Elder’s hotel room ceiling panel under which the weapon used in the murder was found.
The twist in the investigation will surely give the American defense team hope that they can question the police work as part of their defense.
In November, police leaked details from what is purported to be a secret taping of Elder and his father and American lawyer in the prison visiting room during which Elder is supposed to have said that, indeed, he did know Cerciello was a police officer. Elder’s lawyers told The Daily Beast they strongly deny the content of the leaked police transcript of the tape. They continue to insist that Elder did not know he and Hjorth were faced with police officers that fatal night.
“When they quickly flashed their cards or whatever ...,” Elder allegedly said before being interrupted by his lawyer, Craig Peterson, during their prison conversation. Peterson then is supposed to have 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,” Peterson reportedly said, then added, “You did not see anything.”
Peterson adamantly denied to The Daily Beast that such a conversation ever happened.
Italian lawyers for Elder told The Daily Beast on Thursday that they were still weighing the significance of the investigation into the police officers, but that it certainly underscored the flaws in the case. Lawyers for Hjorth declined to comment, but have previously asked that their client, who is a dual American-Italian citizen, be placed under house arrest.
The young Americans are in separate prisons in Rome accused of aggravated homicide and other charges awaiting a Feb. 26 trial date. They have separate defense teams but will be tried together. They face life in prison if convicted.