Who are Finnegan Elder and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth? California students who stabbed cop to death get life in jail
Elder stabbed officer Cerciello Rega 11 times after a botched drug sting, and Natale-Hjorth helped him with hiding the murder weapon
Two American students have been sentenced to life in prison by a court in Rome for killing an Italian police officer. After almost 13 hours of deliberation, a jury convicted Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, for killing officer Cerciello Rega, 35.
Rega had only just returned to duty after his honeymoon when he was stabbed to death on a street in central Rome in July 2019. Elder stabbed Rega 11 times after a botched drug sting and Natale-Hjorth helped him with hiding the murder weapon, the jury found. Under Italian law, an accomplice can also be charged with murder.
Both the defendants have said that they didn’t know the Carabinieri paramilitary officer was a cop and claimed they acted in self-defense. Elder looked stunned when the verdict was read out on Wednesday night, May 5. During a brief court appearance earlier on May 5, Elder’s parents were in court as was Natale-Hjorth’s uncle. Rega’s widow, Rosa Maria Esilio, broke down in tears in court after hearing the verdict.
Who are Finnegan Lee Elder and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth?
Rega, 35, and a partner were called to investigate an extortion attempt after Elder and Natale-Hjorth allegedly stole a cell phone from a street cocaine dealer who had taken their money without supplying drugs. The then-teenagers used the phone to set up a meeting to get their money back, the court heard. The young boys said they thought that Rega and his partner Andrea Varriale, who both wore plainclothes, were thugs who were attacking them on a dark street when the deadly fight ensued. The students then fled the scene but were traced the very next day after police found the knife used to kill Rega.
The incident took place when Natale-Hjorth was visiting Italian relatives near Rome when he met Elder, who was traveling through Europe, on 26 July, 2019. Both the teenagers were from California and went to the same school. Elder, who was traveling with an 18cm (7in) combat knife in his suitcase, and Natale-Hjorth said they mistook the officers for criminals out to get them and acted in self defense. On the day of the murder, the students had contacted a middleman to buy cocaine in Trastevere, a popular nightlife area. The middleman took the teenagers to a drug dealer, who charged them €80 ($96.2) for “cocaine” but sold them aspirin instead. While retaliating, they took the middleman’s bag, which had his mobile phone, and fled before allegedly demanding a cash ransom and cocaine to return the bag. The middleman arranged to meet the pair in the Prati district. He had also contacted the police to report the theft, and the two officers went to the site.
“Life imprisonment is not a trophy to be exhibited but a just penalty… in the face of such tragic facts, nobody wins and nobody loses,” prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta said in her rebuttal to defense arguments in late April. Calabretta dismissed defense arguments that Elder’s constant fear of attack, the result of a history of psychiatric problems, made him kill Rega after mistaking him and Varriale for criminals. Varriale testified that the two officers approached the teenagers on the street from the front and showed their badges, although Rega’s was never found.