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American students found guilty in Italian police officer's death

The two defendants were sentenced to life in prison.
/ Source: NBC News

Two American students were found guilty Wednesday of killing an Italian police officer after a lengthy trial and were sentenced to life in prison.

Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, both from Mill Valley, California, were accused of fatally stabbing Vice Brig. Mario Cerciello Rega on July 26, 2019, during a meeting they organized to swap a stolen backpack for money they lost in a drug deal.

Elder admitted in a statement read to the high court in Rome that he stabbed Cerciello Rega, but he said he did so because he feared for his life.

“I want to apologize to everyone, to Cerciello Rega’s family and to his friends, to the whole world,” he said. “If I could go back and change things, I would do it now, but I can’t.”

After the verdict was announced, Elder's lawyer, Renato Borzone, said that he would appeal.

"We will appeal and hope to find a more reasonable judge next time. What happened is unheard of," he said. "I have never seen something like this in 40 years of career. To give life sentences to two 19-year-old boys is shameful. Italy’s justice is strong with the weak, and weak with the strong.”

On the night of the killing, the pair bought what they thought was cocaine but turned out to be aspirin, the court heard. When they realized, prosecutors said, they stole the backpack of the Italian man who had introduced them to the drug dealer. They then arranged to meet up and return the backpack.

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But the go-between tipped off the police, and plainclothes officers Cerciello Rega and his partner, Andrea Varriale, met Elder and Natale-Hjorth at the swap.

After a fight broke out, Cerciello Rega was stabbed 11 times with a 7-inch military-style attack knife.

Varriale testified that he tried to stop blood pouring out like a “fountain” from his partner, but Rega died in a hospital shortly afterward.

His funeral was held at the church where he had been married just six weeks earlier.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth were arrested hours later. A knife was found concealed inside a ceiling panel in their hotel room, and police said Elder admitted to being the owner.

Both were charged with homicide, attempted extortion, assault, carrying an attack-type weapon without just cause and resisting a public official. Under Italian law, anyone who participates indirectly in an alleged murder can also face murder charges.


Elder and Natale-Hjorth admitted they sought to buy cocaine that night and that they snatched the middleman’s backpack before arranging a meeting near their hotel to exchange the bag in return for the money they gave the drug dealer.

However, they claimed they acted in self-defense and that the officers did not identify themselves as police — a claim Varriale denied.

Their trial, which began in February 2020, was delayed by coronavirus lockdowns, and some of the hearings were held without the public or journalists.

Prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta previously asked the court to convict both defendants and sentence them to life imprisonment — Italy’s harshest criminal penalty — for the “disproportionate and deadly attack.”

“Life imprisonment is not a trophy to be exhibited but a just penalty. … In the face of such tragic facts, nobody wins, and nobody loses,” she told the court.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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