USA

Trial begins for two Bay Area students accused of killing Italian policeman

Two California students went on trial in Italy on Wednesday in the fatal stabbing of a Rome police officer during a brawl that shocked Italy.

Finnegan Lee Elder, 20, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 19, high school classmates from Mill Valley, near San Francisco, could face life sentences for the killing last July of Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, a member of Italy’s paramilitary Carabinieri police.

Cerciello Rega and a fellow officer, Andrea Varriale, were in plainclothes when they stopped the California men after a drug deal went wrong in the early hours of July 26.

Varriale has said that he and Cerciello Rega announced they were police officers. The Americans have said that they did not, and that they mistook them for drug dealers.

Elder’s father, Ethan Elder, has said his son was pinned down and choked by Cerciello Rega and fought back in self-defense, fearing for his life.

In the melee, as Natale-Hjorth wrestled with Varriale, Elder produced a 7-inch serrated-edge combat knife and stabbed Cerciello Rega 11 times, leaving him to bleed to death on the sidewalk.

On Wednesday, Elder entered a Rome courtroom wearing a checked shirt and North Face jacket and looking defiant, before mouthing the words “I love you” to his parents. Dressed in a white shirt and sweater, Natale-Hjorth appeared more intimidated by the packed courtroom.

Both sat near Maria Rosaria Esilio, Cerciello Rega’s widow, who married the officer weeks before he was killed and said in a statement before the trial, “My family has ended with Mario’s death because our unborn children and dreams were buried with him.”

As the two Americans left the court during a break in the opening hearing, which dealt with administrative issues, an Italian man approached them and hissed “Schifoso” — “disgusting” — at them.

The police investigation has been dogged by controversy since a photo was leaked of Natale-Hjorth being interrogated while handcuffed and blindfolded, while Ethan Elder has alleged that his son was slapped, kicked and spat on during questioning.

Police wiretapped a conversation between Elder and his mother in jail, in which it was claimed he admitted he knew Cerciello Rega was a police officer. It later emerged, however, that Elder’s words had been mistranslated and he had not made the admission.

Ethan Elder has likened the case to the arrest in Italy in 2007 of American student Amanda Knox, who was accused of stabbing her housemate during a drug-fueled sex game, and purportedly confessed her involvement in the crime to police interrogators.

In that case, police found a message on Knox’s phone addressed to a local barman stating, “see you later” and believed it signified a rendezvous to commit the murder later that night, without realizing the phrase can also simply mean “see you around.”

After four years in jail and a series of trials, Knox was acquitted in 2016.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth were on vacation in Rome last July and purchased drugs from a street dealer only to find that instead of cocaine they had been sold ground-up aspirin.

To get even, they stole a bag from a man they believed was an accomplice of the dealer, demanding 100 euros and a gram of cocaine for its return.

The man, however, informed the police, who sent the officers to the fateful meeting in the upscale Prati district.

Huge crowds attended Cerciello Rega’s funeral — which was broadcast live on television — at which he was hailed as a hero, while then-Interior Minister Matteo Salvini described the Americans as “bastards” who deserved forced labor in jail.

Under Italian law, Natale-Hjorth risks the same homicide conviction as Elder, even though he did not stab Cerciello Rega.

“Finn’s parents are anxious to see a transparent trial and for the truth to come out,” their Italian lawyer Renato Borzone said during a break in the hearing.

Franco Coppi, an Italian lawyer representing Cerciello Rega’s widow, noted it was seven months to the day since the officer died.

“You can imagine how she feels right now,” he said.

Kington is a special correspondent.