Gabriel Natale-Hjorth and Finnegan Lee Elder are the two California teenagers who are accused of the killing Italian police officer Mario Cericiello Rega at around 3 a.m. on July 26 in Rome over just over $100 and a gram of cocaine.
Officials in Italy believe that Rega, 35, was stabbed as Natale-Hjorth, 18, and Elder, 19, were confronting a drug dealer who they believed had swindled them, Italian news agency ANSA reported, citing law enforcement sources. As with most European countries, Italy does not have the death penalty.
ANSA says that the alleged swindle took place in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, an area popular for its nightlife. While the stabbing of Rega took place in the quiet area of Prati, an area better known for businesses and offices. Both Natale-Hjorth and Elder hail from the middle-class suburb of Mill Valley, located outside of San Francisco.
The ANSA report says that Natale-Hjorth and Elder are accused of stealing the bag of a drug-dealer as the believed the man had swindled them. The New York Times reports that the pair had been trying to buy drugs and approached a man. That man directed them to another man. The two suspects said that the drug-dealer sold them fake drugs, purported to have been aspirin. In retaliation, Natale-Hjorth and Elder said that they stole the bag and cellphone of the original man they spoke to. The Times reports that the initial suspects in the crime were two North African men, that theory was dismissed after witnesses came forward.
When the drug-dealer arranged to meet the pair, he also contacted Italy’s paramilitary police force, the Carabinieri, of which Rega was a member. The two American tourists wanted $112 and a gram of cocaine in exchange for returning the back, ANSA said.
Rega and his partner approached Natale-Hjorth and Elder at the time and place where the pair had arranged to meet the drug-dealer. That’s when the scuffle broke out. Police say that Rega was killed after being stabbed eight times by Elder, ANSA reports. The report adds that Rega was stabbed in the back and the heart. He was rushed to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead. Surveillance video from nearby appears to show the pair fleeing the scene.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. On the Morning of July 28, Photos of Natale-Hjorth Blindfolded in Police Custody Spread Online
Around 48 hours after the incident occurred, photos of Natale-Hjorth blindfolded while in police custody began to spread online. At the time of writing, Elder and Natale-Hjorth are both being questioned in a police station in the Italian capital, reports the Associated Press.
Provincial Commander Francesco Gargaro told the AP that Natale-Hjorth had been blindfolded “for a very few minutes, four or five.” Natale-Hjorth is accused of punching Rega’s partner. The partner was not seriously injured. Despite not being accused of stabbing Rega, Natale-Hjorth could still be charged with murder due to the nature of his alleged involvement.
Gargaro also said that the blindfolding of suspects is illegal and that the officer who had done it had made a mistake. Gargaro added that the blindfolding was done to prevent Hjorth-Natale from seeing documents relating to his case. That AP report also says that Natale-Hjorth did not have a lawyer present during his initial questioning as it was not a formal interview.
According to the AP, prior to the arrest of Hjorth-Natale and Elder, Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini said that the suspects would be made to “pay dearly” for the crime.
The pair are being held on suspicion of murder and attempted extortion. Investigators say the pair have confessed to the killing, according to the Associated Press. During an initial hearing in a Rome court on July 27, both Elder and Hjorth-Natale remained silent, as is their right. They are both being held at the Regina Coeli prison.
The man who reported the two to the police, identified by ANSA as Sergio B, will be investigated by the police for alleged drug crimes. Corriere Della Sera further identified the man as Sergio Brugiatelli.
2. Elder Had Been Invited to Stay in Italy by Hjorth-Natale as He Has Relatives in the Country
It has been widely reported that Elder had been invited to go to Italy by Hjorth-Natale, as he has relatives in the country. Carabinieri Lt. Col. Orazio Ianniello told the media that the suspects were both staying in an “upscale” hotel close to where Rega was stabbed. The pair were not with any other family members at the time of the stabbing.
Police in Italy have retrieved the weapon they believe was used in the stabbing. In a statement, Italian police described the weapon as a knife of “considerable size.” The police said that the knife was found during a search of the pair’s hotel room. That press release adds that the suspects had been preparing to leave the country at the time of their arrest.
3. Natale-Hjorth & Elder Both Graduated From Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, Outside of San Francisco
Both Natale-Hjorth and Elder are 2018 graduates of Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, a middle-class suburb 10 miles north of San Francisco. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Elder also attended Sacred Heart High School in San Francisco for a time.
Natale-Hjorth had been a lacrosse player in high school. Since graduating, both Natale-Hjorth and Elder have been attending Santa Barbara City College.
4. Someone Who Knows Natale-Hjorth Said ‘When Gabe Is on Drugs, He’s Insane’
Speaking to ABC San Francisco, a friend of Natale-Hjorth’s, who was not named, said of the suspect, “When Gabe is on drugs, he’s insane. He has a lot of anger. He’s known around here as a drug dealer. I feel like he thinks he can get away with everything. He’s gotten away with so much trouble in Marin.” While another, named as Matt Kearney, told the ABC-affiliate, “I always saw him as a bit sketchy, but nothing this bad.”
In a separate interview with KPIX, a former classmate of Natale-Hjorth’s, Tommy Flynn, said of the suspect, “I’ve kind of always known that he’s a bad guy. He would come up in stories of just like activities that you wouldn’t want your kids getting into. He’s kind of known around town as a delinquent character.” Flynn added, “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.”
5. Rega Had Recently Returned to Work After Marrying His High School Sweetheart in 5 Weeks Previously
Sandro Ottaviani, Rega’s commanding officer, said that the 35-year-old officer had recently returned to work after he married his “longtime sweetheart” five weeks previously, reported that Associated Press. Rega had just been on his honeymoon. The AP article says that Rega was known to accompany people to the Catholic shrine in Loreto, as well as constantly helping the homeless at Rome’s Termini train station, including buying meals for them out of his own pocket.
His wife was identified as Rosa Maria by ANSA. Rega’s funeral will be held close to the city of Napoli at noon on July 29, it will be broadcast live on Italy’s national broadcaster. It will be held in the same church where Rega was married.
Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio wrote in a Facebook post about the slaying of Rega, via Google Translate, “What happened to deputy sergeant Mario Cerciello Rega. still leaves us without peace. There is one more step we can take, however, and that is to equate the treatment of the victims of duty with that of of the victims of terrorism.”