ROME — Two teenage American tourists were arrested on Saturday and accused of murder and attempted extortion in the fatal stabbing of a military police officer in Rome, Italian officials said.
The teenagers, identified as Finnegan Lee Elder, 19, and Gabriel Christian Natale Hjorth, 18, both born in San Francisco, were accused of stabbing the officer, Deputy Brig. Mario Cerciello Rega of Italy’s military police, or carabinieri, on Friday morning. The officer had tried to recover a backpack the two men were accused of stealing a few hours earlier, officials said.
The suspects have admitted to the crime, according to a statement by the carabinieri press office.
The killing of the 35-year-old officer, who had recently returned to work after his honeymoon, shook Italians and spurred front-page newspaper headlines. “Rome, violent city. Carabiniere murdered” was the headline emblazoned on the Roman daily Il Tempo. The front page of another newspaper, Il Messaggero, read: “Killed to defend Rome,” while La Repubblica wrote, “Carabiniere killed in Rome’s drugland.”
The two Americans were arrested at a four-star hotel room in the Prati neighborhood of Rome on Friday as they were getting ready to leave the country, according to the carabinieri press office.
The statement said that officers found “a knife of considerable size,” believed to be the weapon used to kill Brigadier Cerciello Rega, hidden behind a panel in the hotel room ceiling, along with clothes that the men had apparently worn during the attack.
A military police spokesman said the crime had unfolded after the two Americans approached an Italian man asking where they could buy drugs, and he indicated a seller nearby.
The spokesman said the Americans bought drugs, but “according to what they say, they weren’t real drugs,” so they sought out the seller to get their money back.
When they couldn’t find him, the spokesman said, they returned to the first Italian man and stole his backpack, which contained his cellphone. Later, when the man called his phone, the Americans demanded “100 euros and a gram of cocaine” for its return, the police said.
They made an appointment to meet near the hotel where the two men were staying. The victim of the theft called the carabinieri, and two plainclothes officers went to the meeting in his place.
A fight ensued, and Mr. Elder then stabbed Brigadier Cerciello Rega eight times, the police said.
Mr. Elder’s lawyer, Francesco Codini, said in a phone interview that the two teenagers had availed themselves of the right to remain silent during a court hearing on Saturday afternoon. A judge in Rome must rule on whether to confirm the arrest.
Asked how his client, who he first met Saturday morning, was doing, Mr. Codini replied, “Not well.” Mr. Elder does not speak Italian, the lawyer said, and declined to address his client’s purported confession.
The two suspects are being held in the Regina Coeli prison. A lawyer for the younger man could not immediately be reached for comment.
Initial news reports said that two North African men had killed the officer, but witnesses and surveillance video cameras soon put the carabinieri on the trail of the Americans. They were tracked from their first encounter with the Italian with the backpack in the Trastevere neighborhood to a street where they were running with the backpack in hand.
Some Italian news outlets linked the murder to Rome’s underground drug trade, and to bigger operations that finance other illicit trafficking. Other reports wondered why the officer and his partner did not use their firearms during the encounter. Others asked why the two carabinieri did not wait for backup, as protocol would suggest.
The Italian affiliate of the broadcaster Sky News reported that the funeral of Brigadier Cerciello Rega would be held on Monday in the city of Somma Vesuviana, in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, at the same church where he was married less than two months ago.