American students found guilty in Italian policeman's death

ROME – Two American students were found guilty on Wednesday of killing an Italian police officer after a lengthy trial in which the prosecutor sought the couple’s life in prison.

Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, both from Mill Valley, California, were accused of stabbing Vice Brig. Mario Cerciello Rega died on July 26, 2019 during a meeting they organized to exchange a stolen backpack for money they lost in a drug deal.

Elder later admitted in a statement to the Rome Supreme Court that he stabbed Cerciello Rega, but said he did so because he feared for his life.

“I would like to apologize to everyone, to the Cerciello Rega family and friends, to the whole world,” he said. “If I could go back and change things, I would do it now, but I can’t.”

On the night of the murder, the couple bought what they thought was cocaine, but it turned out to be aspirin, the court heard. When they noticed, prosecutors said they had stolen the backpack from the Italian who introduced them to the drug dealer. Then they made an appointment and returned the backpack.

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But the mediator gave the police a tip, and civil servants Cerciello Rega and his partner Andrea Varriale met Elder and Natale-Hjorth on the swap.

After a fight broke out, Cerciello Rega was stabbed 11 times with a 7-inch military-style assault knife.

Varriale testified that he tried to stop the blood leaking like a “well” from his partner, but Rega died shortly afterwards in a hospital.

His funeral took place in the church where he was married just six weeks earlier.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth were arrested hours later. A knife was found hidden in a ceiling tile in her hotel room, and police said Elder admitted to being the owner.

Both were charged with murder, attempted extortion, assault, carrying an assault weapon for no good cause, and resisting an officer. Under Italian law, anyone indirectly involved in an alleged murder can also be charged with murder.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth admitted that they wanted to buy cocaine that evening and that they grabbed the middle man’s backpack before arranging a meeting near their hotel to exchange the bag for the money they gave the drug dealer.

However, they claimed they defended themselves and the officers did not identify themselves as police – a claim that Varriale denied.

Their trial, which began in February 2020, was delayed by the coronavirus lockdown and some of the hearings took place without the public or journalists.

Prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta had previously asked the court to convict both defendants and to sentence them to life imprisonment – Italy’s harshest sentence – for “disproportionate and fatal assault”.

“Life imprisonment is not a trophy to be issued, but a just punishment. … In the face of such tragic facts, nobody wins and nobody loses, ”she told the court.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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