In this combo photo released by Italian Carabinieri, Gabriel Christian Natale Hjorth, right, and Finnegan Lee Elder, sit in their hotel room in Rome. File picture: Italian Carabinieri via AP
In this combo photo released by Italian Carabinieri, Gabriel Christian Natale Hjorth, right, and Finnegan Lee Elder, sit in their hotel room in Rome. File picture: Italian Carabinieri via AP

US teens accused of killing Italian cops showed 'total absence of self-control': judge

By Hannah Knowles Time of article published Jul 30, 2019

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An American accused of stabbing an Italian police officer to death claims he acted in self-defense, saying he thought he was being strangled, according to the Associated Press.

But Finnegan Lee Elder, 19, had no neck marks pointing to attempted strangulation, Judge Chiara Gallo wrote in a ruling. Upholding the jailing in Rome of Elder and his friend Gabriel Christian Natale Hjorth, 18, who was also arrested in the killing, Gallo said that both Americans were dangerous and displayed a "total absence of self-control."

The judge's assessment, issued Saturday, was reported by the AP and others, as a photo of one of the Americans blindfolded in custody raised questions about authorities' procedures. The suspects claimed that the officers did not identify themselves as members of law enforcement.

The disputes complicated the case as police, government officials and Italian citizens mourned the slain officer, Mario Cerciello Rega, at a packed funeral in the church where Cerciello Rega was married 43 days before his death. Both of the country's deputy prime ministers showed up for the Monday memorial broadcast on state television, the latest outpouring of grief in a case that has outraged Italy and made headlines around the world. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has called the 35-year-old officer's death a "deep wound for the State."

Italian authorities say Cerciello Rega was killed after he responded to reports of theft and an attempted drug deal involving the two Americans. The Carabinieri, the Italian military police force that Cerciello Rega served in, say the tourists confessed to Cerciello Rega's killing after their arrest Friday on suspicion of aggravated murder and attempted extortion.

Elder and Natale Hjorth's lawyers did not respond Monday to inquiries from The Washington Post. Elder's lawyer, Francesco Codini, said Sunday that he would be checking on his client's health but declined to comment further, saying investigations were ongoing.

Police said the American suspects tried to buy drugs, stealing the bag of the Italian man who pointed them to a seller after they realized they had purchased a fake product, according to the New York Times. The Italian man agreed to give the Americans 100 euros and a gram of cocaine in exchange for the stolen bag, which had his phone inside, police said. But he tipped off police before the exchange.

Police and the suspects agree that Cerciello Rega was in plainclothes when he showed up at the scene with a Carabinieri partner. But whether the officers showed identification is disputed, according to Gallo's order: Cerciello Rega's partner said they displayed badges and identified themselves, while the Americans say they did not.

Adding to the confusion, a detention order is cited by media outlets as saying that Natale Hjorth, who can understand Italian, confirmed that Rega identified himself as a Carabinieri officer.

The Americans "even before we could carry out any kind of check attacked us physically," the partner, Andrea Varriale, reportedly told investigators. Varriale said Cerciello Rega shouted, "Stop, we're Carabinieri. Enough," while grappling with Elder. Varriale recalled realizing his partner was bleeding as the Americans fled. Cerciello Rega was wounded in the heart, the Carabinieri said.

Elder has admitted to repeatedly stabbing the officer with a seven-inch blade but told investigators he thought Cerciello Rega and his partner were sent by the man they stole from, according to Gallo's ruling.

Elder used a knife he brought into the country from the United States, police told CNN. Some of the officer's wounds were as deep as the weapon's full length, a Carabinieri general said.

Natale Hjorth did not stab the officer, police said, instead punching the man's partner, who was not seriously injured. But anyone deemed to participate in a killing can be charged with murder in Italy.

Natale Hjorth said he did not know his companion had a knife and that Elder told him about using the weapon back at the teens' hotel, according to Gallo's order.

Authorities tracked the alleged attackers to the four-star hotel Le Meridien in Rome, where the teens were prepared to leave the country, according to police and a detention order. According to the Carabinieri, investigators found a long knife used to stab Cerciello Rega hidden behind a ceiling panel. They also discovered the clothes police say the teens wore during the altercation.

The Americans were classmates at a Mill Valley High School north of San Francisco, the AP reported.

The case has spawned dueling outrage over not only the killing but also over a leaked picture that circulated widely of Natale Hjorth blindfolded and handcuffed in police custody. The Italian paper La Repubblica called the image a "macabre exhibition" and an affront to "the constitutional principles and moral values that hold up our democracy."

But others, including one of the Italian politicians who has called most stridently for justice in Cerciello Rego's case, have minimized the blindfolding controversy.

"Victim?" Italy's deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, wrote on Facebook over the leaked picture of Natale Hjorth. "The only victim is a man, a son, a husband, a carabiniere, a servant of the state."

The Carabinieri have said Natale Hjorth was blindfolded so that he would not see investigation documents. Still, police called the action a "mistake," according to the AP, and are investigating the blindfolding along with Italian prosecutors.

The Post wrote Sunday: "The officer who blindfolded the suspect 'will be moved to a non-operational department,' an Italian-language news site stated, citing the Carabiniere. A police commander called Natale Hjorth's treatment 'unacceptable,' and police spokesman Roberto Riccardi told Repubblica that the photo circulating was 'twice intolerable' - 'intolerable in itself' and intolerable for the fact it was taken and shared."

Rome Provincial Cmdr. Francesco Gargaro told the AP that the illegal blindfolding lasted just minutes before Natale Hjorth's interrogation. Rome's prosecutor general, Giovanni Salvi, said a lawyer was present for prosecutors' questioning of both suspects and added that neither was blindfolded or handcuffed during the interrogation.

Rome prosecutors did not respond to the The Post on Monday. Carabinieri Maj. Lorenzo Eacobome said that he could not answer questions and that a Rome news conference scheduled for noon on Tuesday with prosecutors would provide more details.

Natale Hjorth's lawyer, Emiliano Sisinni, told the New York Times that his client's treatment constituted a "clear violation of his rights" that could have affected his statements to authorities. He said Natale Hjorth had confessed to elements of the events police described but not to murder.

Elder's lawyer would not tell the Times whether Elder, too, had been blindfolded. He said his client was under 24-hour watch.

The controversy over procedures could have implications for Natale Hjorth's and Elder's cases. Speaking to CBS News, U.S. criminal defense attorney Brian Claypool drew parallels between their arrests and missteps during police questioning in the case of Amanda Knox, who was infamously convicted, freed, re-convicted and then exonerated in the 2007 killing of her roommate in Italy.

"One saving grace for these teenagers in Italy is, much like what happened with Amanda Knox, if they are found guilty, they will have an opportunity to have an appeal of the entire facts that led to a decision of guilt," Claypool said.

Knox weighed in Monday to say that she is "withholding judgment," as many ask her about the new case.

The case "should be tried in the court of law, not the court of public opinion," she tweeted. "In any case, it's tragic. My [heart] goes out to the victim's family."

The U.S. State Department said this weekend in a statement that it is aware of the Americans' arrests and provides help to citizens detained abroad. But the department declined to comment further, citing privacy concerns.

Cerciello Rega was buried in Somma Vesuviana, his hometown near Naples. Solemn clapping began as the coffin, draped in an Italian flag, emerged from a vehicle amid tolling bells - and went on for nearly five minutes as black-uniformed men bore Cerciello Rega's body through the crowd and into the church.

The commander of the Carabinieri, Gen. Giovanni Nistri, said Cerciello Rega showed "the values that a carabiniere should aspire to," according to the Times. Those gathered remembered a man who, as the Carabinieri wrote in a Facebook post mourning their officer, lived a "life devoted to others."

"My friend Mario was a good person," the mayor of Somma Vesuviana, Salvatore di Sarno, said at the ceremony. "He dedicated his life to the service of the weakest."

The Washington Post

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