US students in court in Rome over police murder

American students appear in court over fatal stabbing of Rome policeman.

Two US students accused of murdering a police officer in Rome last summer are due to appear in court in Rome on 26 February.

Californian students Finnegan Lee Elder and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth could be handed life sentences if convicted of murdering Mario Cerciello Rega, a 35-year-old carabiniere who was stabbed to death in Rome in the early hours of 26 July.

Cerciello Rega and his colleague Andrea Varriale, both dressed in plain-clothes, had gone to investigate a drug deal gone wrong in the upmarket Prati district of the capital.

The US students, who had been on vacation in Rome and were teenagers at the time, say they acted in self-defence and that the two officers did not identify themselves.

Elder has admitted to stabbing Cerciello with an 18-cm serrated-edge combat knife but told investigators he thought he and his friend were being attacked by drug dealers.

What happened prior to attack

A few hours earlier Elder and Natale-Hjorth had been trying to buy cocaine in the popular night-life area of Trastevere. A man described as an "intermediary" and identified as Sergio Brugiatelli helped them find a dealer who allegedly sold them crushed aspirin instead of drugs.

In retaliation the students stole Brugiatelli's rucksack, demanding the return of their money plus a gram of cocaine in exchange. However Brugiatelli informed the police of the situation, with undercover officers Cerciello Rega and Varriale going to the designated meeting place in Prati instead of Brugiatelli.

Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega. Photo Il Mattino.

Elder claims that they were jumped from behind by the officers who they believed were criminal associates of Brugiatelli. Varriale has said that he and Cerciello, both unarmed, told the young men they were police, but that Elder pulled out a knife and attacked Cerciello Rega, while Natale-Hjorth wrestled with Varriale.

In the ensuing 32-second brawl Cerciello Rega was stabbed 11 times, later dying from his wounds in nearby S. Spirito hospital.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth fled the scene but were tracked down the next day to a hotel, in the same area as the attack, where police found the military knife hidden behind a ceiling panel.

Contradictory version of events

Varriale initially said that he and Cerciello Rega had been attacked by men of north African descent, as well as claiming that he had been armed. However it later transpired that both officers were unarmed and that they acted without backup, in violation of police procedure.


Natale-Hjorth blindfolded in police station

Shortly after the teens' arrest, a photo showing Natale-Hjorth blindfolded and restrained at a police station was leaked to the Italian media, attracting further controversy to the case.

Separately, defence lawyers for the US students say that transcripts of talks between Elder and his lawyer which were published in Italian media and suggested that he had confessed, were badly translated and appeared to omit parts of their conversation.

Outpouring of public sympathy

Cerciello Rega's murder received widespread attention in Italy where he was portrayed as a hero. He had only just returned to duty from his honeymoon, and massive crowds turned out for his funeral at the same church where he had been married just 43 days before.

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Wanted in Rome
Wanted in Rome is a monthly magazine in English for expatriates in Rome established in 1985. The magazine covers Rome news stories that may be of interest to English and Italian speaking residents, and tourists as well. The publication also offers classifieds, photos, information on events, museums, churches, galleries, exhibits, fashion, food, and local travel.
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