ROME—Two American teens from San Francisco said to be on a drug holiday in Rome are in custody for murder and attempted extortion in connection with the stabbing death of a 35-year-old police officer early Friday morning. The boys have been named by the Italian press as Lee Finnegan Elder, 19, and Gabriel Christian Natale Hjorth, 18.
Roman police said in a statement Saturday morning that they two were interrogated by Carabinieri under the direction of the local Rome prosecutor. “In the face of overwhelming evidence, they confessed to the charges.”
On Saturday afternoon, Francesco Codini, who said he was representing Elder, told reporters that his client had exercised his right not to speak in further investigations. Codini said he would not give further interviews out of respect for the fallen police officer. A lawyer for the other suspect had not been officially named.
Police say the boys bought what they thought to be cocaine from a drug dealer in the lively district of Trastevere in central Rome. But when they tried to snort the powder, they realized it was just ground aspirin. They were then caught on surveillance video returning to the square where they initially bought the fake cocaine. When they got there they stole the alleged pusher’s bag. The pusher then called his cellphone, which was still inside the bag, and made a deal to return the money and one gram of real cocaine to the young men if they would give everything else back to him.
The pusher, who is reported to be a police informant and has not been named, called the cops and invited them to the rendezvous. Once there, officer Mario Cerciello Rega reportedly stepped in to question the American teens about the drug purchase. The Americans then allegedly punched and kicked Cerciello Rega before stabbing him eight times with a large knife around 2 am. Cerciello Rega, who had just returned to duty from his honeymoon days earlier, died a few hours later.
The boys were caught on surveillance cameras fleeing the scene with the stolen bag in their hands. The bag was later found near their hotel.
Initial reports on Friday suggested that the alleged killers were North African migrants before the Americans were arrested.
Rome police confirmed in a statement that the teens were arrested in their room at the Hotel Meridien Visconti near the Vatican in central Rome on Friday afternoon after police found a bloody knife and clothes tucked into the ceiling tiles of the double room.
Police also confirm that the young men had already booked tickets to return to the United States.
Late Saturday, the Elder family issued a statement to reporters by email. “We write as a family to express our deepest condolences to the grieving family and community that loved Brigadier Cerciello Rega,” they wrote. “We are shocked and dismayed at the events that have been reported, but have very little independent information about these events. We have not been able to have any communication with our son. We ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time. Our thoughts are with all of those who have been impacted by this tragedy.”
This is a developing story.