2 U.S. Students on Trial Over Killing of an Italian Police Officer

With defense lawyers and prosecutors giving widely differing accounts of the night in question, a jury will weigh the evidence over the killing of a paramilitary officer in Rome.

The Regina Coeli prison in Rome, ahead of the trial of two Americans over the killing of Deputy Brig. Mario Cerciello Rega.
The Regina Coeli prison in Rome, ahead of the trial of two Americans over the killing of Deputy Brig. Mario Cerciello Rega.Credit...Ciro De Luca/Reuters

ROME — The lives of two American teenagers and two Italian law enforcement officers crossed paths for less than a minute in the early hours of July 26, 2019.

Yet the consequences of that brief encounter began to be played out on Wednesday when the two Americans — Finnegan Elder, now 20, and Gabriel Natale Hjorth, now 19 — went on trial for the murder of Deputy Brig. Mario Cerciello Rega of the carabinieri, Italy’s paramilitary police force.

The circumstances that led to the ill-fated 32-second aggression, the time estimated by court documents, remain unclear, though much of the evidence is overwhelming. The two teenagers were arrested and jailed just hours after the fact, the murder weapon found in their possession.

Ultimately the jury will be asked to deliberate whether the two Americans were aware that Brigadier Cerciello Rega, who was 35 when he died, and his partner, Carabinieri Officer Andrea Varriale, were plainclothes officers.

Prosecutors say the teenagers attacked the officers to avoid arrest, while the teenagers say they acted in self-defense, believing the two plainclothes officers to be ill-intentioned heavies.

“We have diametrically opposed hypotheses of the dynamics of that night,” said Fabio Alonzi, a lawyer for Mr. Natale Hjorth. “The question is to see which hypothesis has more supporting evidence.”

The immediate public outpouring of grief for Brigadier Cerciello Rega was sincere, if stoked by nationalist lawmakers fueling the perception — often not borne out by facts — of a country at the mercy of drug dealers, petty criminals and lawless immigrants. His funeral, broadcast on national television, became a state affair attended by government officials and other authorities.

For investigators — the Nucleo Investigativo Carabinieri of Rome, officers who are part of the same military corps as the victim — it was a clear-cut case.

ImageFinnegan Elder, left, and Gabriel Natale Hjorth in their hotel room in Rome, in a combo photo released by Italian Carabinieri.
Finnegan Elder, left, and Gabriel Natale Hjorth in their hotel room in Rome, in a combo photo released by Italian Carabinieri.Credit...Italian Carabinieri, via Associated Press

The killing of Brigadier Cerciello Rega, they say, was the culmination of a series of fateful events that unfolded that muggy summer night after the two teenagers set off to buy drugs in Rome’s trendy Trastevere area, and the deal went bad.

Shortly after midnight, four off-duty carabinieri singled them out in Piazza Trilussa. In text messages to each other, they described them as “polli,” or chickens, which in Italian refers to someone who is easily duped.

The teenagers found a middleman, Sergio Brugiatelli, a habitue of the Trastevere night life, who offered to hook them up with a dealer. The off-duty carabinieri tailed them as they walked to Piazza Mastai, about 10 minutes away.

No sooner had Mr. Natale Hjorth handed over 80 euros, about $87, to the dealer than the off-duty officers interrupted the deal, identifying themselves as carabinieri, according to the investigators’ report.

Mr. Natale Hjorth told Mr. Elder that he hadn’t believed them.

“What cops just take your money and then let you run?” Mr. Elder told Craig Peters, the family’s United States-based lawyer, according to a transcript of a wiretapped prison conversation seen by The New York Times that prosecutors have presented as evidence.

Last week, several Italian newspapers published parts of the transcript, revealing that the translations used by the carabinieri to bolster their case were misleading, while some passages that favored the defense case had been omitted. Mr. Alonzi said the investigators had “made some glaring errors.”

As they fled from Trastevere, Mr. Natale Hjorth and Mr. Elder took Mr. Brugiatelli’s backpack, which he had left on a bench.

In the transcript, Mr. Elder said they had taken the backpack because they were angry that they had been duped.

But Mr. Brugiatelli had left his phone in his backpack, which allowed for negotiations to begin for its return.

Defense lawyers for Mr. Natale Hjorth say that the teenagers merely wanted to get their €80 back and were willing to exchange the backpack for it.

Several conversations ensued. The defense lawyers say that at one point the Americans had decided to call it quits, but Mr. Brugiatelli insisted that they meet. Carabinieri officials asked Brigadier Cerciello Rega and Officer Varriale to assist Mr. Brugiatelli with the retrieval. That night, the two men were on duty in plain clothes.

Officer Varriale testified that he and his partner had told the two Americans that they were carabinieri, showing their badges. The two teenagers say the officers did not. Carabineer Varriale said he had heard his partner shout, “Stop! We are carabinieri.” The teenagers say he did not.

In the investigators’ account, the teenagers “put up lightning-fast resistance.” Officer Varriale was “kicked and punched” by Mr. Natale Hjorth, who managed to get away, while Brigadier Cerciello Rega was repeatedly stabbed by Mr. Elder, it says.

At 3:16 a.m., while his colleague lay stricken, Officer Varriale called for help. Brigadier Cerciello Rega died shortly after at Rome’s Santo Spirito hospital.

Officer Varriale initially told investigators that he had his gun with him, and, inexplicably, identified the two assailants as North Africans.

It later emerged that neither officer had a gun or handcuffs, and that Brigadier Cerciello Rega did not have his badge with him. It remains unclear whether Officer Varriale had his, as an inventory of his possessions at the time has not been given to the court.

“We are absolutely certain that the two boys — especially Finn, who doesn’t speak a word of Italian — had no idea that they were policemen,” said Renato Borzone, another Italian lawyer for Mr. Elder.

Mr. Alonzi pointed out that the two Americans had expected to meet up with Mr. Brugiatelli but instead found “two guys, a little older” than themselves. “It was natural to be taken off guard,” he said.

Defense lawyers for both have criticized the carabinieri’s behavior that night as sloppy and unprofessional.

“It’s hard to believe that such a longstanding police force doesn’t have processes and procedures, but the Carabinieri in this case appeared not to have followed many,” said Craig Peters, a San Francisco-based lawyer assisting the Elder family.

Leah Elder, Mr. Elder’s mother, who arrived in Rome this week for the trial, said: “This tragedy never should have happened.”

Court papers show that the two officers left their radio in the car, making it harder for them to be tracked down once Brigadier Cerciello Rega was wounded. They did not alert headquarters as to their whereabouts in order to prepare a backup car.

“It’s all without sense — we have to understand why this happened,” Mr. Borzone said.

If the Americans are found guilty, they risk spending their life behind bars.

Both have been severely tried by nearly seven months in prison, their lawyers and family say.

A man lost his life, which is a tragedy, Mr. Alonzi said. “But this doesn’t mean that we can’t seek justice at the trial — that would be another injustice.”