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Tuesday 20 August 2019

Suspect ‘killed Italian police officer because he feared he was being strangled’

Two US teenagers are being held in Rome after a plainclothes officer was stabbed to death.

The coffin containing the body of the Carabinieri’s officer Mario Cerciello Rega is carried during his funeral in his hometown of Somma Vesuviana, near Naples (Ciro Fusca/AP)
The coffin containing the body of the Carabinieri’s officer Mario Cerciello Rega is carried during his funeral in his hometown of Somma Vesuviana, near Naples (Ciro Fusca/AP)

By Frances D'Emilio, Associated Press

One of two American teenagers held in Rome for allegedly killing a policeman said he stabbed the plainclothes officer because he feared he was being strangled, according to a judge’s ruling.

Carabinieri paramilitary police Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega was stabbed 11 times and collapsed on a street near the teenagers’ hotel on Friday, after he and a fellow plainclothes officer confronted the Americans as part of an investigation into a cocaine deal the two were allegedly involved in.

He died shortly afterwards inhospital.

Judge Chiara Gallo wrote in her ruling upholding the detention of the two California residents that 19-year-old Finnegan Lee Elder told authorities he stabbed Mr Cerciello Rega after he felt pressure on his neck.

But the judge noted that Elder did not have any marks on his neck indicating an attempted strangulation.

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American teenager Finnegan Lee Elder (Andrew Medichini/AP)

Judge Gallo said Elder’s friend and travel companion, 18-year-old Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, told investigators he was not aware of the stabbing until Elder woke him up at their hotel hours later and told them he had “used a knife” and then washed it.

Investigators said on Saturday that both teenagers had admitted their roles in the death. Under Italian law, anyone who participated in a killing can face murder charges.

In her ruling, issued on Saturday, the judge wrote that Elder admitted during interrogation by prosecutors that he stabbed the officer “several times” with a knife described as a military-style attack model with a 7in blade.

She said Elder told investigators he did not realise the two men were police officers and believed they were men sent by an Italian man whose backpack they had stolen a few hours earlier.

That man, identified as Sergio Brugiatelli, told investigators that two youths with American accents approached him in Rome’s Trastevere nightlife district asking if he had 80 euros (£73) of cocaine to sell, according to the judge’s order.

Mr Brugiatelli said he did not, but accompanied one of the teenagers, a blond he later identified as Natale-Hjorth, to a dealer in the neighbourhood. Mr Brugiatelli said the other teenager, who he later identified as Elder, sat waiting on a bench where he had left his bag with a mobile phone

According to Mr Brugiatelli, the “blond youth” gave the dealer money for the drugs, but at the sight of approaching police , everyone scattered. He later told investigators that when he returned to the bench a friend told him that Elder had run off with his bag.

Mr Brugiatelli said he dialled his mobile number and one of the teenagers answered and demanded he bring 80 or 100 euros plus a gramme of cocaine to a street near their hotel if he wanted the bag back.

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The coffin containing the body of Mario Cerciello Rega is carried during his funeral (Ciro Fusca/Ansa/AP)

After police were informed of the extortion attempt, Mr Cerciello Rega and his partner, Andrea Varriale, were sent to the rendezvous point, the judge’s order said.

The judge noted that the teenagers claimed the officers did not show identification. But, she said, Mr Varriale told investigators both officers showed their badges and identified themselves as police. “But the pair, even before we could carry out any kind of check attacked us physically,” she quoted him as telling investigators.

Mr Varriale told investigators Mr Cerciello Rega yelled as he was struggling with Elder: “Stop, we’re Carabinieri. Enough.”

He said Natale-Hjorth kicked, scratched and punched him to break away, then both teenagers fled. As he watched them run Mr Varriale said he saw his partner was bleeding profusely from his left side, near the chest. “Before falling to the ground, he told me, ‘They stabbed me’,” the judge quoted Mr Varriale as saying.

Mr Cerciello Rega was eulogised on Monday as a hero at a funeral in his home town, Somma Vesuviana, in the same church where the 35-year-old officer had got married six weeks earlier.

Italy’s military chaplain, Archbishop Santo Marciano, said Mr Cerciello Rega lived and died to safeguard others’ lives, adding that the officer was known for warmly greeting residents of the neighbourhood in historic Rome.

He spent his off-duty hours as a volunteer dishing out hot meals to the homeless in Rome’s main station and accompanied ailing faithful to religious shrines, including in Lourdes, the archbishop said.

PA Media

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