(CN) – Italian police on Tuesday provided more details – but also stoked more questions – surrounding the killing of a plainclothes Carabiniere officer who is said to have been stabbed to death in central Rome by a teenager from California during a drug deal gone bad.
Finnegan Lee Elder, 19, is accused of the fatal late-night stabbing on early Friday of Deputy Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega, an officer with the Carabinieri, a military police force. Elder’s 18-year-old friend, Gabriel Christian Natale Hjorth, is also in custody in connection with the stabbing. Natale Hjorth is American-Italian.
The teenagers, both of whom are from California, were arrested in their hotel room, where police say they found the murder weapon – a 7-inch, military-style knife – and bloody clothes.
This murder case has gained widespread coverage in large part due to questions being raised about the conduct of the Carabinieri. The Corriere Della Sera newspaper printed leaked photos showing Natale Hjorth blindfolded in police custody, which is against Italian law. The actions of the undercover Carabinieri have also been called into question.
The two Americans were allegedly trying to buy cocaine when things went bad. According to investigators, the Americans met a man called Sergio Brugiatelli who helped them find a dealer.
The Americans paid 100 euros for what they thought was cocaine, but which turned out to be crushed aspirin. They went back to the square where Brugiatelli was and stole his backpack in retaliation. Brugiatelli’s phone was in the backpack and he called it. The Americans and Brugiatelli then agreed to meet and exchange the backpack for 100 euros and a gram of cocaine. Brugiatelli then called the Carabinieri to report the attempted extortion.
Rega and Andrea Varriale – undercover police officers – were assigned the case.
On Tuesday, Francesco Gargaro, the commander of Carabinieri in Rome, said Carabinieri often patrol the area of Trastevere, a popular tourist destination, in plainclothes to catch drug dealers and stop other crimes.
On that night, Gargaro said Rega and Varriale saw the Americans and another person acting suspiciously and followed them. Later, the Carabinieri came across Natale Hjorth, one of the Americans, who was stooping down to fetch something from the ground and they asked him what he was doing, Gargaro said. The teen then fled. Gargaro said the two officers lost track of him.
Then, about an hour later, Brugiatelli called the police about his stolen backpack. The commander said Rega and Varriale met Brugiatelli and arranged to meet the two Americans.
Gargaro said that when Rega and Varriale showed up in the place where they were to meet the Americans, they were “immediately attacked” by the teens who were wearing hoodies. Gargaro said Brugiatelli was not with the officers.
Gargaro said the officers announced they were Carabinieri to the teens. The teens told investigators they were not aware the two men were Carabinieri.
The commander said Rega had forgotten his gun at home, but added that he would not have had time to use it anyway.
The Americans said they thought the two undercover officers were there to attack them and a fight broke out in which Rega was stabbed to death. Elder claims he acted in self-defense because he thought he was being strangled when he stabbed Rega, the Associated Press reported.
On Saturday, an Italian judge dismissed those pleas and upheld the jailing of the two teenagers.
Judge Chiara Gallo called both Americans dangerous and said they showed a “total absence of self-control.”
On Monday, a funeral was held for Rega, 35, in the same church where he was married a little more than a month ago.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)