2 Americans sentenced to life for murder of Italian police officer

The two men had been charged with homicide, attempted extortion, assault, resisting a public official and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause


By Katie Dowd
SFGate, San Francisco

ROME — Finnegan Lee Elder and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, a pair of former Marin classmates who met up in Rome on vacation and became inextricably linked through the slaying of an Italian police officer, are guilty of murder, an Italian jury ruled Wednesday.

They were both sentenced to life in prison.

The jury consisted of presiding judge Marina Finiti, a second judge and six civilian jurors. They deliberated for 12 hours before delivering their late-night verdict at nearly 11:30 p.m.

Elder, now 21, and Natale-Hjorth, 20, who met at Tamalpais High in Mill Valley, were on vacation in Italy in 2019 when they scuffled in the street with two Carabinieri officers. Deputy Brig. Mario Cerciello Rega, 35 years old and fresh off his honeymoon, was stabbed to death. His widow, Rosa Maria Esilio, wept as the verdict was read. Elder, who was standing, put his hands on the table in front of him as if to brace himself. Natale-Hjorth showed little emotion at all.

Neither prosecutors nor the defendants disputed that Elder and Natale-Hjorth tried to buy cocaine from a local dealer in Trastevere, a nightlife district in Rome, on July 26, 2019.

"I thought that it would be something that would help us enjoy the night, and from past experience, I thought the effect of the drug would make us feel better and give us some energy to walk around to get to bars and pubs," Elder said in court.

According to police, Elder and Natale-Hjorth got upset when the man who showed up for the drug deal didn't give them the cocaine. In retaliation, they allegedly stole the man's backpack and demanded 100 euros and a gram of cocaine to get it back. Unbeknownst to them, the man was a Carabinieri informant; he then told police he'd been robbed by the pair.

The informant arranged to meet back up with the Bay Area teens (Elder and Natale-Hjorth are identified as being from San Francisco in court documents). At that meeting, around 2:30 a.m., two plainclothes police officers — Cerciello Rega and his partner Andrea Varriale — arrived. Here is where the two sides' stories vastly deviated.

Police and prosecutors said the officers identified themselves as law enforcement and showed their badges but were attacked "immediately" by the teens. Lawyers for the Americans said the officers did not identify themselves as such, and the fatal stabbing was an act of self defense by Elder. Elder told the court in March he brought a knife to the meeting because "it gave me a sense of protection." Prosecutors say he stabbed Rega 11 times.

Renato Borzone, one of Elder's lawyers, argued in court that Elder has "psychiatric problems" and a constant paranoia about being attacked, feelings that were triggered during the confrontation with police.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth were found in their hotel room several hours after the incident. Natale-Hjorth testified that after Elder washed off the knife, he asked Natale-Hjorth to hide the weapon. Police later found it hidden behind a ceiling panel in the room.

Elder did not deny killing Rega, instead arguing in court it was a case of self defense not murder. During one March court appearance, Elder read from a handwritten statement for about an hour. In Italian courts, this is known as a "spontaneous declaration," and there is no examination or cross-examination by lawyers.

"I remember little of the next few moments except for feelings of shock and terror," he said. "I do remember, however, that I could feel his hands pressing on my chest and then on my neck with pressure, as if he were trying to strangle or choke me. At this stage, I panicked and believed he wanted to kill me. As soon as I felt his hands squeezing my neck, I instinctively brought out my knife and hit him three times in an effort to get him off me."

Elder and Natale-Hjorth have been held at the Regina Coeli prison in Rome since 2019 and throughout the coronavirus pandemic. The trial began in February 2020, pausing briefly during the early stages of the country's COVID lockdown.

Although it was initially reported the pair were good friends — they both graduated from Tamalpais High in Mill Valley in 2018 — Gabriel's father Fabrizio Natale walked that back a bit in an interview. According to him, they were not close friends, but instead a pair of former classmates who happened to be in Italy at the same time and decided to meet up. Natale-Hjorth was born in Italy and moved to the United States as a boy; he holds dual citizenship and took trips to Italy each summer.

Along with homicide, they were both found guilty of extortion (because of an alleged drug deal gone south), resisting public officials and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause. Even though Natale-Hjorth did not stab Rega himself, he was equally charged in the murder, per Italian law.

As in the United States, Italy has an appeals process. It seems likely the men will file an appeal.

(c)2021 SFGate, San Francisco

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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