Two former Marin County students have been convicted of murder for the death of an Italian police officer when they met up in Rome on vacation in 2019 and have been given life in prison sentences.
The two suspects, Finnegan Lee Elder and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth were ruled guilty by an Italian jury on Wednesday. The jury consisted of presiding judge Marina Finiti, a second judge, and six civilian jurors. The group deliberated for 12 hours before delivering their verdict at around 11:30 p.m.
Now 21-year-old Elder and 20-year-old Natale-Hjorth had an encounter with two Italian police officers after a cocaine purchase went wrong. The two are charged with stabbing the victim, 35-year-old Deputy Brig. Mario Cerciello Rega to death during the confrontation.
On July 26, 2019, Elder and Natale-Hjorth were purchasing cocaine from a local dealer in Trastevere, Rome. “I thought that it would be something that would help us enjoy the night, and from past experience, I thought the effect of the drug would make us feel better and give us some energy to walk around to get to bars and pubs,” Elder said.
Police said the two suspects got angry when the dealer was unable to provide the cocaine they wanted to buy. They then stole the man’s bag and demanded he brings the drugs the next time they met. However, Elder and Natale-Hjorth were unaware that the local dealer was a Carabinieri informant who later told police about the robbing incident.
On the next scheduled meeting date, two police officers greeted the suspects at around 2:30 a.m., officers Rega and his partner, Andrea Varriale. Police said the officers identified themselves as law enforcement, showing their badges to the suspects. However, they said the two men immediately attacked them with a knife.
Elder’s lawyers, on the other hand, said the incident was an act of self-defense. He said he brought a knife to the meeting as it gave him a “sense of protection.” Prosecutors said Rega was stabbed 11 times.
Police later found the two suspects in their hotel room a few hours after the encounter. Natale-Hjorth said Elder washed the blood off the knife and gave it to him so he could hide it away. Police officers found the weapon behind a ceiling panel in the room after searching the area.
While Elder did not deny he stabbed and killed Rega, he said it was an act of self-defense and not murder, the San Francisco Gate reported.
“I remember little of the next few moments except for feelings of shock and terror. I do remember, however, that I could feel his hands pressing on my chest and then on my neck with pressure as if he were trying to strangle or choke me. At this stage, I panicked and believed he wanted to kill me. As soon as I felt his hands squeezing my neck, I instinctively brought out my knife and hit him three times in an effort to get him off me,” Elder said in court.
The two suspects were also found guilty of extortion due to the incident with the drug dealer, resisting public officials, and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause. While Natale-Hjorth did not directly kill Rega, under Italian law, he was equally charged with the murder.