ROME (KPIX/AP) — Two Bay Area teenagers who were classmates at a Marin County high school spent a second night in a Rome jail Saturday after they were interrogated for hours about their alleged roles in the murder of an Italian policeman.
The teens were vacationing in Rome. Both suspects graduated from Tamalpais High School in 2018, and neighbors and classmates expressed different opinions of the pair. Some were shocked, others, not at all.
Investigators contended in written statements Saturday that the pair had confessed to their roles in the grisly slaying. Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega, a member of the storied Carabinieri paramilitary corps, was stabbed eight times, allegedly by one of the teens, leaving him bleeding on a street close to the teens’ upscale hotel near Rome’s Tiber River.
Italian authorities identified the two as 19-year-old Finnegan Elder from San Francisco, and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth from Mill Valley.
Police said they were apparently traveling in the Italian capital without family members.
The 35-year-old victim was married in June, and just returned to work from his honeymoon.
In the detention order, Elder is described as repeatedly stabbing the officer.
According to police, it all started with a drug deal gone wrong.
Investigators say the teens bought what they thought was cocaine. When they found out the white powder was fake cocaine, police said the two teens attacked the seller and took his backpack.
The seller later contacted the police.
Investigators said Cerciello Rega, along with another Carabinieri officer, were both in plainclothes when they confronted the Americans about 3 a.m. Friday. When officers tried to retrieve the backpack, the two teens attacked the officers.
Natale-Hjorth was described in the document as having repeatedly punched Cerciello Rega’s partner.
Italian police officers carry guns, but it was unclear why they weren’t used.
The Carabinieri said surveillance cameras and witnesses helped them identify and find the Americans. While searching their hotel room, police said, investigators found a long knife hidden inside the room’s dropped ceiling. Also found were clothes worn during the attack, police said.
Under Italian law, persons participating in a killing, but who didn’t actually carry out the slaying itself, risk being charged with murder.
Both suspects are also being investigated for attempted extortion.
Finnegan Elder’s family declined an interview outside of their San Francisco home on Saturday. Instead, they released a written statement:
“We write as a family to express our deepest condolences to the grieving family and community that loved Brigadier Cerciello Rega. We are shocked and dismayed at the events that have been reported, but have very little independent information about these events. We have not been able to have any communication with our son. We ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time. Our thoughts are with all of those who have been impacted by this tragedy.“
Neighbor Gloria Keeley told KPIX that Elder is a good kid.
“I’ve known Finn since he was born and I’m in shock. He’s one of the nicest neighbors,” said Keeley.
Most neighbors know him as Finn. He played varsity football at Sacred Heart High School, in San Francisco, but later transferred to and graduated from High School, in Mill Valley.
“My vision of Finn, I don’t see him doing that,” said Keeley.
Two other neighbors weren’t too surprised by the allegation and arrest.
They didn’t want to provide their names, but they said Elder is a troublemaker. They recounted several instances where Elder had gotten drunk and thrown up in front of their home.
The second suspect, Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, played Lacrosse at Tamalpais High. His classmate said he had a violent reputation on campus.
“I’ve kind of always known that he’s a bad guy,” said a Tamalpais High student who knew Natale-Hjorth. “He would come up in stories of just like activities that you wouldn’t want your kids getting into. He’s kind of been known around town as a delinquent character.”
Natale-Hjorth’s family declined to comment when KPIX went to their family home in Mill Valley.
“The audacity to do that in another country is frightening. I just think it’s disgusting to kill a police officer, when they’re keeping everyone safe,” the student said.
Italian police said the two teens have already confessed.
Since the killing, Cerciello Rega, beloved for his charity work with the homeless and the ailing, was praised as a hero for trying to help keep Rome’s streets safe.
Photos of the officer, wearing his uniform for his wedding and showing off his wedding band as he sat next to his beaming bride, dominated the front pages of many Italian newspapers Saturday.
Parents with their children left bouquets of flowers at the bloodstained site.
Authorities vowed that justice would be done.
“Hoping that the killer of our poor Carabiniere never gets out of prison, I remind do-gooders that in the United States, whoever kills risks the death penalty,” tweeted Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is also in charge of state police, another national Italian police corps. “I’m not saying we’ll get to that, but yes to a life in prison (in labor, obviously).”
Like all European Union countries, Italy doesn’t have the death penalty.
Elder’s lawyer, Francesco Codini, said his client had exercised his right not to respond to questions during a detention hearing Saturday.
Codini declined to say anything more out of “respect for the family” of the slain officer. Asked how Elder was doing psychologically, he replied: “worn out.”
Natale-Hjorth’s lawyer didn’t speak to reporters waiting outside the jail after the hearing.
The judge left without indicating when she might rule on whether the American should stay jailed while the investigation continues.
This case could spark comparisons to another spectacular slaying investigation involving a young American in Italy.
Amanda Knox was an American university student in Perugia when she was initially accused in the 2007 stabbing death of her British roommate Meredith Kercher. She was convicted but ultimately acquitted.
Italian media focused on Knox, largely ignoring the fate of the Briton. In contrast, a decade later, the murder victim is an Italian policeman at a time when Salvini’s law-and-order right-wing party is soaring in popularity.
“Hero of the Fatherland, justice for Mario,” read a note, signed by the “neighborhood citizens” and left near the scene of his death.
© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. KPIX 5’s Da Lin and the Associated Press contributed to this report